I’ve been thinking, reading, meditating and praying about the subject of God’s omnipresence and His presence in us a lot lately. This was started by an ongoing online discussion between some Jehovah’s Witnesses and some ex-Witnesses. A person who is studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses wrote the following on a forum during a discussion of Jesus’ presence.
You know, my Mom died a few years ago. At every family gathering, we always comment how she is there with us. Is she there in a literal way? Of course not. But we speak about her, and talk about how the way she raised us, and taught us is still guiding our life today.
Isn’t this the same sense in how Jesus is with you? If you would have thought about the scripture you listed as cross references, this may have become clear. Let’s look at one of them – Matthew 28:19,20.
“Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded YOU. And, look! I am with YOU all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.”
When Jesus told them to go and teach, didn’t he ask them to teach what he himself taught them? His teachings are passed on. His commandments we still follow! THAT is how Jesus is with us until the very end of the age. That is how he is present within all of us. It’s not a literal omnipresence.
Even though he is new to Jehovah’s Witnesses, this fellow’s view is quite consistent with Jehovah’s Witness teaching. There are several of their teachings that lead to their conclusion that Jesus is not literally present with all believers. They teach there is no Trinity, that Jesus is a created being (Michael the archangel) and that the Holy Spirit is not a person or being, but an impersonal force. They also teach that since the Father and the Son have spirit bodies, they are not omnipresent, but are confined to being in one place at any given point in time. This line of reasoning can be seen in the following quote from a 1981 issue of The Watchtower:
Actually, by teaching that God is omnipresent Christendom has confused matters and made it more difficult for God to be real to his worshipers. How could God be present everywhere at the same time? God is a spirit Person, which means that he does not have a material body, but a spiritual one. A spirit has a body? Yes, for we read, “If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual one.” (1 Cor. 15:44; John 4:24) God being an individual, a Person with a spirit body, has a place where he resides, and so he could not be at any other place at the same time. Thus we read at 1 Kings 8:43 that the heavens are God’s “established place of dwelling.” Also, we are told at Hebrews 9:24 that “Christ entered . . . into heaven itself, now to appear before the person of God for us.” – The Watchtower, 2/15/1981 p. 6 “How Real Is God to You?”
Since they have come to the conclusion that Jesus cannot be omnipresent, how do they deal with Matthew 28:20? As with so many other verses of Scripture, they take it figuratively rather than literally. In 2002, The Watchtower made the following comment regarding Matthew 28:18-20:
2 Jesus not only assigned his disciples the life-saving work of making more disciples but also promised to be with them. The history of early Christianity, as recorded in the Bible book of Acts, shows beyond a doubt that Christ used the authority given him to lead the newly formed congregation. He sent the promised “helper” “the holy spirit” to strengthen his followers and to guide their efforts. (John 16:7; Acts 2:4, 33; 13:2-4; 16:6-10) The resurrected Jesus employed angels at his command to support his disciples. (Acts 5:19; 8:26; 10:3-8, 22; 12:7-11; 27:23, 24; 1 Peter 3:22) Moreover, our Leader provided direction to the congregation by arranging for qualified men to serve as a governing body. Acts 1:20, 24-26; 6:1-6; 8:5, 14-17. – The Watchtower, 3/15/2002 p. 13 para. 2 “Christ Leads His Congregation”
This article then went on to explain how Jesus is also present with Jehovah’s Witnesses through His leadership as expressed through their elders. So rather than Jesus presence being literal, The Watchtower teaches that Jesus is present with Jehovah’s Witness by proxy. They are teaching that Jesus is “present” with JWs through the leadership exercised by angels, the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses and through their local elders. On one level, I am glad the prospective Witness wrote his views on Matthew 28:20. It spurred me to reflect on my own relationship with Christ. On another level, I found it profoundly sad and disturbing. For me, it highlighted the extreme contrast between my relationship with Christ years ago and what it is today. Years ago, I would have agreed with that view of Christ’s presence with those whom I viewed at the time as the only true Christians. I was a Jehovah’s Witness for over two decades.
In recent years, however, I have realized that this view of the nature of Christ’s presence takes all the power out of Jesus’ statement at Matt 28:20. Look at the context in which Jesus told his disciples that He would be with them. In verse 18, Jesus said that all power in heaven and on earth had been given Him. In verse 19 and the first part of verse 20, Jesus gave His disciples the Great Commission. Then, Jesus tells them He will be with them until the end of the age.
Here is some more of my reply post:
I think it is significant that Jesus placed the Great Commission between His telling the disciples of His power and of His continued presence with them. It is the power and the presence of Jesus that gave Christ’s disciples the ability to fulfill the Great Commission in their day and does the same for Christians today. Jesus telling them, and by extension us, of His power and presence builds us up for the work that He gave them and us to do. While the memory of Christ and His teachings is obviously important, it is His literal power and presence in the lives of Christians that really empowers them.
Today there are Neo-Nazis who still remember and follow the teachings of Adolph Hitler, there are Muslims that remember and follow the teachings of Mohammed and there are Buddhists who remember and follow the teachings of Buddha. Since these followers continue in the memory and teachings of their now dead leaders, those leaders are with them in the same sense that you feel both Christ and your mother are with you. Is Jesus no more with you than Hitler is with the Neo-Nazi, or Mohammed is with the Muslim or Buddha is with the Buddhist? Is the presence of Christ in your life no more than the memory of the teachings of a person who is now dead?
Because they are no longer alive, the presence of Hitler, Mohammed or Buddha in the lives of their followers, as well as your mother’s presence in your life is strictly passive. They have no power to actively participate in the lives of their followers, nor do their followers have any power to participate in their lives, because they have no life in which to participate. On the other hand, due to His resurrection, Christ is alive. He can and does participate in the lives of Christians.
In a verse that I always took to apply only to the written word of God, we see just how powerful and present the risen Christ, the incarnate Word of God, is in the life of the Christian.
(Heb 4:12) For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
We know that this verse is talking about Christ as the Word, rather than the written word from the following verse.
(Heb 4:13) And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. ( “Him to whom we must give an account” in other translations. )
Jesus Christ is a not just a dead, passive presence, but a living, vibrant, active, powerful presence in the life of the believer. I don’t mean any of this to minimize, marginalize or trivialize the virtual presence of this man’s in his life by his memories of her and her teachings; rather it is meant to magnify and glorify the power and presence of the risen Christ in the life of Christians. Here are some more Scriptures that talk about the presence of God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, in the believer. I think they point to much more than a virtual presence.
Matthew 18:20 (New American Standard Bible) 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
John 14:17 (New American Standard Bible) 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.
Romans 8:9 (New American Standard Bible) 9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.
1 Corinthians 3:16 (New American Standard Bible) 16 Do you not know that you are a temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
1 Corinthians 6:19 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (20 shows that 19 was meant individually, not collectively) 2 Corinthians 6:16 (New American Standard Bible) 16 Or what agreement has the temple with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.
Galatians 2:20 (New American Standard Bible) 20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Colossians 1:27 (New American Standard Bible) 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.