God Is (4):
God is Eternal
We’re in our final week of this mini-series on the attributes of God—it’s a series we’ll come back to in the future, as we have many more attributes left to see.
I remember the first time we told our son Jack about today’s subject; he must have been about five years old. We were reading Psalm 90 with him, and we got to verse 2:
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
He asked what that meant, and we explained that everything that exists had a beginning—the world had a beginning, and everything in it. But then we said, “But God never had a beginning, and he’ll never have an end.”
And he just stared at us, like a deer in headlights, for a long time, and then he shook his head and said very matter-of-factly, “No.”
I’m sure you’ve guessed it: for this final week, we’re talking about the reality that “God Is Eternal.”
Now I want to say this clearly before we begin. A lot of people get into discussions on subjects like this, and they get really excited, because they’re fascinating. But as I said a couple weeks ago, the goal of this series is not to give a series of metaphysical lessons on the nature or essence of God; the goal of this series is to ask ourselves, “What difference does it make? Why should these truths drive us to worship God, and love God, and serve God?”
And at least in regards the eternity of God, you don’t need to understand how it works in order to answer that question.
So let’s talk about God’s eternity for a moment, and then we’ll get into why it matters.
The Eternality of God
In order to talk about God’s eternity (or eternality, if you prefer an adjective—and no, I did not make up that word), we need to remember how the Bible uses language, and why.
This isn’t a perfect illustration, but you’ll see what I’m getting at. Have you ever tried explaining the Internet to a very small child? If you’ve got small kids, give it a try: you’ll see the problem. They don’t yet have the basic knowledge they need to understand the greater knowledge. So if your kid asks, “How’d that picture of Spider-Man get inside your computer?” (as my son has asked me), you have to simplify it: you have to say things that are true, but that aren’t the whole story—things like, “Well, there’s all this information—pictures and words and music and movies—kind of floating around, and the computer knows how to reach out and grab those things and show them to us.” That’s not false, but it’s far from the whole story.
God had the unique challenge of making human beings understand, in a limited way, what they are too small to understand. So in order to do that, he often speaks to us in the Bible in what theologians sometimes call “condescending language.” That means that he uses language we can understand, to help us grasp, in a limited way, things we can’t understand.
And this whole question of God’s eternality comes down to that question: how the Bible uses language. When it speaks of God’s relationship to time, is it using condescending language, or is it using accurate language?
Here’s what the Bible says. The Bible says that God is eternal—that God has always and will always exist. We saw that already: FROM everlasting (since an eternity before) TO everlasting (until an eternity after) YOU ARE GOD.
Most theologians throughout history have taken this to mean that God is, as they say, “outside of time.” Mark Jones explains it by saying, “God has no succession of moments… He does not increase in knowledge or wisdom. He sees all things that have ever been or shall ever be at once, which we may call an ‘eternal present.’”
The idea is that because God created time, he is necessarily outside of it, and so always sees past, present and future. The most convincing argument for this—at least it’s the argument that’s come the closest to convincing me—comes from the 11th-century theologian Anselm (and this is really good):
“Through your eternity you were, you are, and you will be. And since being past is different from being future, and being present is different from being past and from being future, how does your eternity exist always as a whole? Does none of your eternity pass by so that it no longer is, and is none of it going to become what, so to speak, it not yet is? Then, in no case were you yesterday or will you be tomorrow; instead, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, you are. Or better, you simply are—existing beyond all time. You do not exist yesterday or today or tomorrow; for yesterday, today, and tomorrow are nothing other than temporal distinctions. Now, although without you nothing can exist, you are not in space and time but all things are in you. For you are not contained by anything but rather you contain all things.”
That comes awfully close to what Paul said in Colossians 1.16:
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together [including time, according to Anselm].
So let me be clear: you can say this, and believe it, and affirm it, and be perfectly in the realm of orthodox Christianity—this is where most theologians and Christians go, and if I had to guess, I would guess that it’s probably true.
Here’s why it makes me a little uncomfortable, at least as a pastor: the Bible never says precisely that: it never explicitly says that God is outside of time, or even use language that would suggest it. To explain God’s relationship to time, the Bible uses words like “before, after, always,” etc. Jesus presents himself in Revelation 1.4 as he who is [present], who was [past], and who will be [future].
The apostle Peter says in 2 Peter 3.8 that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
Are we to take that as “condescending language,” as God saying something we can understand, to help us grasp the incomprehensible? Or are we to take it to mean what it seems like—that God has experienced so much that a thousand years are nothing to him? Because he doesn’t say that “with the Lord a thousand years are all happening right now”—it says they are “as a day”: that is, so brief it’s like it passes in the blink of an eye. (We say the same thing about our children: It’s gone by so fast, it feels like he was born yesterday.)
Oscar Cullman wrote that the New Testament “does not make a philosophical, qualitative distinction between time and eternity. It knows linear time only…” He says, “Primitive Christianity knows nothing of a timeless God. The ‘eternal’ God is he who was in the beginning, is now, and will be in all the future”...
He’s right—that’s the way the Bible talks. And even those who maintain that God exists outside of time will admit as much. James Barr, who affirms that God is outside of time, still says that “if such a thing as a Christian doctrine of time has to be developed, the work of discussing it and developing it must belong not to biblical but to philosophical theology.”
That’s why all this talk makes me nervous—I’m not a philosopher; I’m a pastor. My job is to take what the Bible says, and preach what the Bible says, so that we might live according to what the Bible says. To paraphrase Calvin, in our discussions of theology we want to go as far as the Bible, and no further: anything beyond belongs to the realm of speculation, and is no longer biblical theology.
So what do we do with this, then? Do we simply put the idea of God’s eternity on a shelf and not talk about it, because we can’t understand with certainty what it all means?
The answer is a resounding no. Whether or not God is “outside of time” is irrelevant. Although the Bible isn’t concerned with explaining the metaphysics of God’s eternity, it absolutely affirms it, and it affirms it in such a way as to make it clear that knowing that God is eternal should make a massive difference in our lives.
So all that being said, let’s go back to today’s text, Psalm 90.
Psalm 90 was written by Moses, and God’s eternality is at the center of this whole psalm. He establishes God’s eternality in verses 1 and 2, and then teases out a series of truths related to it—three primary truths that we need to see.
Eternal Refuge (v. 1-6)
Firstly, he shows us that because God is eternal, he is a fitting and proper refuge for his people.
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
Moses goes back and forth between God’s eternity and our place in his hands. In v. 1-2 he says that God is the dwelling place—or refuge, as it is often translated—for his people: why? Because before God ever created the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Then in v. 3, he speaks of the sobering reality that God is the one in control of man’s life and death: he’s the one who after forming man from the dust, returns man to the dust. How can he have the right, and the perspective, and the wisdom, to do that? Because he is the eternal God—a thousand years in his sight are like yesterday when it is past.
The first affirmation is a positive one (God is a refuge because he is eternal), and the second, some may see as negative (God has eternal power over all of humanity, power to give life and power to take life). But both the positive and negative affirmations are reasons for comfort.
Why? Here’s the best way I can think of to explain it.
My father was a youth pastor when I was young, and I remember one event from my early childhood very clearly. One summer night at a church party at someone’s house, the teenagers in his youth group picked him up and threw him in the swimming pool that was there.
I was four, maybe five years old, and absolutely terrified. I had no idea what was going on; I just heard them yelling, heard my dad yelling, heard the splash, and I started wailing.
To reassure me, my mom brought me over to the pool; my dad swam over to the side. He stood up in the pool, and picked me up, and wrapped me up in a tight bear hug. He was soaking wet, so I was too. But I remember that when he picked me up and held me, I knew that everything was okay, because my dad was big, and the water only came to his waist, and he was holding me.
There are aspects of life and death and the passage of time that we can’t grasp. Thinking about things that were here thousands of years ago, of which we now only see the barest remnants, is frightening because we know it’ll be the same for us in a few thousand years.
The older we get, the more we think about aging, sickness, death…because at one time they were far away, but we know they are creeping up on us more and more every day. And it happens crazy fast.
Here’s what Moses is saying: God is bigger than all that. He was here before he created the world, and he’ll be here after he’s renewed it. He brings us into the world, and when he knows it’s time he takes us out of it.
God is a proper and sure refuge for us because he is above and before every natural thing that frightens us, and he holds them—and us—in his hand.
If there ever was a sure refuge from fear, it is in the arms of the One who was here before the things that frighten us.
That’s the first truth—because God is eternal he is a refuge for his people.
The second thing Moses brings to light in relation to God’s eternity is harder to swallow: his eternal wrath.
Eternal Wrath (v. 7-11)
7 For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
10 The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
Think back: last week we talked about God’s holiness—that God unchangeably loves good and hates evil. And the week before that, we talked about God’s simplicity: that all of God’s attributes are who he is, and they are all involved in everything God does or says or thinks.
So God’s love of good and hatred of evil did not begin with the creation of the world. It didn’t begin with Adam’s sin. It didn’t begin when God cast Adam and Eve from the garden in punishment for their sin.
God’s holiness—his love for good and his hatred of evil—is as eternal as he is, because that’s who he is. And the same goes for God’s wrath: his wrath against sin is also eternal, and it has always been there, and it will always be there.
God’s eternality should make us soberingly aware of God’s eternal wrath against sin. Hell is not a reality we have the luxury of shaking off. The Bible speaks of hell in strikingly specific terms, and they’re terrifying. It describes hell as being a lake of fire (Rev. 19.20), unquenchable fire (Luke 3.17), a fiery furnace and a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13.42), blackness of darkness forever (Jude 13), etc. (And just so we’re clear: Jesus doesn’t present these images as allegorical.) Hell is a terrifying reality.
But the most frightening aspect of hell is without a doubt that hell is eternal.
I’ve had a recurring nightmare, pretty much ever since I became an adult. Here’s what happens: I’m standing in line at the post office…and that’s it. I stand, and I wait. All night long. I wake up stressed, and annoyed, and grumpy—and weirdly, my feet hurt—every time.
Why? Because in reality, as everyone knows, time slows to a crawl when we’re bored. This is why I bring a book with me everywhere I go.
The very real torment sinners will feel, which Jesus describes so vividly, will last forever. As Mark Jones wrote, “In hell it will feel as though there is only time—slow time… For those consigned to hell, their despair will…increase, not decrease. They will never again experience the relief we get in this life of knowing that a difficulty will soon pass (e.g., the nurse who anticipates the end of a stressful twelve-hour shift). As the creature in hell realizes more and more that he or she will suffer forever the despair of eternal judgment will increase.”
(And parenthetically, for those who think of eternal punishment as unfair, remember that those who reject God do so because they don’t love him, and they never will, as we see in Revelation 16.11. They will hate God and curse him there for all eternity, and since their hatred of God will never end, their punishment will also never end.)
The reality of God’s eternity should shake us to our core, because God has always existed, and he has always existed as he is—loving good and hating sin. Nothing will ever make him feel otherwise. So understanding that God is eternal should drive us to repent of our sin, and turn to the only refuge we have from his wrath.
And comfortingly, this refuge is also related to his eternity. If God’s wrath against sin is eternal, so is his love.
Eternal Love (v. 12-15)
12 So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13 Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
It’s important to see that the context Moses describes here is the context of every human being who has ever lived. These people are tired. They have lived, and they have suffered, and they are exhausted.
The idea of God’s eternity can seem like a cruel joke sometimes, because he has been living way longer than us, and yet he never gets tired; never gets stressed; never needs a breather.
But his eternity is also the only source of comfort we have, because he is simple: God is eternal, and God is love, and consequently, his love is as eternal as he is. It has always been, and it will always be.
So rather than merely complaining, or seeing God’s eternity as a frightening reality, Moses leans into it—he describes a people appealing to God’s love, which they know has always existed, and which, they believe, will always exist for them.
Because God is eternal, his love is a breath of fresh air for suffocating people.
Firstly because we know that even if God exists outside of time, he legitimately understands what it is to suffer in a time-constrained world, because he became a man like us.
Thinking about this while preparing this sermon has been particularly comforting for me this week, because I’ve been feeling this a lot lately.
A lot of you probably know that this has been a punishing few weeks for my family. Someone in the house has been sick pretty much non-stop for six weeks now, we had bedbugs in our apartment… It’s been a mess.
On top of that, just the realities of what it’s like to be planting a church has been weighing on me. Little things that aren’t that important, like the dozens of small inconveniences that come from the fact that we don’t have a building, so there’s a lot of work that goes into getting this place ready for Sunday morning… Like the fact that I don’t have an office to work in, but have been working in a library or a café every day for the last four and a half years…
Early one Sunday morning a couple weeks ago, I actually wrote down in my journal that the idea of lugging the things we needed for church all the way here in that suitcase with the broken wheels, and setting up the church, and tearing it down, seemed painfully exhausting… I was tired before I even got started.
And that was the day the guy came up here and hit me in the face.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m really not complaining. I have the best job in the world. But we all know what this is like: you come to moments in your life when little inconveniences—or actual, legitimate painful situations—pile on each other, one after the other, and suddenly they all seem huge, and you just wonder, “Will this ever end?”
Here’s my point. Jesus knows what it’s like.
Regardless of what his experience of time was like before, when Jesus became a man, he had a definite past, a present, and a future. He had long days. He got tired, emotionally and physically. He didn’t just see, but experienced a day beginning, and a day ending.
He knows what it is to wait for something good—like meeting his disciples for the first time. And he knows what it is to wait for something bad—like waiting for the temple guards to come put him in chains, and put him on the road which, in a few very long hours, would lead him to the cross.
If God was simply eternal, we could complain that he can’t possibly understand how hard it is.
But God became a man. Jesus lived as we lived, in order to be a compassionate high priest for us.
And he died our death, because he knew what was waiting for him. He suffered the cross for the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12.2). He suffered the eternal wrath of God in order to share eternity with us.
We’re not eternal like God; each of us had a beginning.
But Jesus lived, suffered and died, to suffer the punishment for our sins and to give us his perfect life. He did all this so that God might declare us righteous as he is righteous…so that our lives with him might never have an end.
So if we have faith in Christ, we know, as he did, what’s waiting for us. And that’s the second reason why his eternal love is a comfort for us.
If despair in hell is compounded by the fact that it will never end, the same is true of joy in heaven.
Time slows down when you’re suffering, and you feel like it will never end. The opposite is true when you’re enjoying yourself. A vacation always feels painfully short, and our joy is dulled a bit because we know it’s going to end soon.
That’s not how it’s going to be in heaven.
In heaven, our joy will increase without end, because we’ll know that there is no end.
In heaven, there will be no end to what we can discover, what we can explore, what we can learn about God, and about his creation.
In heaven, there will be no end to the simple satisfaction of finally being able to see what we were created to see, as we were created to see it.
In heaven, there will be no end to the rest we find in our Father.
In heaven, there will be no end to the infinite pleasures we find in his presence.
It will be so wonderful that, like the best vacation, millennia will fly by in an instant. Time will pass in a blink…and there will always be more of it.
Moses knows all of this—he understands the eternal wrath of God, and the eternal love of God. He also understands the limited time he has in his own life—and so he pleads with God to help him grasp the limited time he has, to use it rightly. V. 12: So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Often people look to the end of a message to find out what God expects them to do. “Give me an action plan! Preferably in two to four points.”
But sometimes God’s Word doesn’t drive us to do anything—sometimes God’s Word simply drives us to contemplate something, to consider it and reflect on it and realize it. That’s the case here.
God’s eternity should make us remember how short this life is—that compared to the rest of eternity, the number of years we have in this life is painfully small. It will go by in a blink. So what kind of people do we want to be, during the time we have here?
God’s eternity should drive us to remember the eternity he has given to us—either an eternity of torment in hell, or an eternity of joy and rest in heaven.
God’s eternity should make us consider our own eternity, and rush to our Savior endlessly to find our righteousness through faith in him. It should drive us to share the gospel with others, so that they might find themselves on the right side of eternity through faith in Christ.
And while we wait for our lives to begin in heaven, the knowledge of God’s eternity should cause us to be thankful for our Savior, who experienced time as we do, who knows what it is like to wait, and who is therefore a good and compassionate high priest for us (Hebrews 4.15).
God’s eternity should drive us to seek our refuge in him, because the only sure refuge is in the One who is, and who was, before the things that frighten us today.
Our God is eternal. We must consider his eternity, remember it, rejoice in it, and share it.