Is Jesus omnipresent during the incarnation? How have other Christians understood this question? How can we employ the sanctuary as a framework for answering this question?
A Small Sample from Selected Theologians in the Past
The following theologians asserted that although Jesus took on human form in the incarnation, He was at the same time omnipresent throughout the universe. Athanasius (294-373) stated,
“And this was the wonderful thing that He was at once walking as man, and as the Word was quickening all things, and as the Son was dwelling with His Father. So that not even when the Virgin bore Him did He suffer any change…” This means that Jesus did not cease to be omnipresent during the incarnation.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) stated,
“By this means…He remained in heaven as Son of God, and as Son of man walked on earth; whilst, by that unity of His person which made His two natures one Christ, He both walked as Son of God on earth, and at the same time as the very Son of man remained in heaven.”
Centuries later, Luther wrote, “Christ’s body is everywhere because it is at the right hand of God which is everywhere.” Hence, for Luther, Christ at the right hand of God in heaven does not detract from him being in the sacrament at the same time, since the right hand of God is not “a particular place in heaven.”
Greek Philosophy’s Role in Jesus’ Omnipresence in the Incarnation
Christians throughout the centuries have assumed Greek philosophy’s interpretation of the I AM. This Greek view prohibits the I AM from experiencing any movement from past to present to future. God thus “exists” in the eternal now, yet “now” does not involve any movement or change. This unbiblical assumption forms the foundation for incorrectly interpreting the divine attributes that are interconnected with the I AM like eternity, immutability, and presence. For instance the Greek view of eternity does not mean that God has had a history that goes back further than what can be searched out (Job 36:26; Psalm 90:2), but that eternity involves the absence of any succession or movement. Also, immutability in this context means that God cannot experience emotions like love, anger or grief since this involves changes that occur in God that contradict His immutability.
Since our current discussion focuses on omnipresence, here is how these ideas relate to omnipresence. First, Christ as the I AM is omnipresent. Second, since He is also immutable, His omnipresence is permanent even in the incarnation. To deny His omnipresence after becoming incarnated would contradict His immutability; therefore Christ must be omnipresent during the incarnation. This is the only logical conclusion if your premise is the Greek view of the I AM.
Outlining the Scope of Omnipresence: The Role of the Sanctuary
Aside from setting aside the Biblical context from which we should understand the I AM, there are three major consequences of this view. These consequences consist of an allegorical/mystical view of (1) God, (2) the sanctuary and its foundational role in interpreting the nature of Jesus, specifically the issue of how the incarnation relates to omnipresence, and (3) the plain and obvious reading of God’s Word.
Transcendence, Omnipresence, and the Sanctuary
We need to first understand that omnipresence not only involves God’s presence in the universe; it also refers to the divine presence outside or beyond the universe in a “place” that only God inhabits. Solomon introduces this thought at the dedication of the temple. He states, ““But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27; cf. 2 Chr 2:6; 6:18). If the temple or the “heaven of heavens” cannot contain God, then we must conclude that His reality exists outside and beyond the universe. This is what I am referring to as transcendence. This means that bowing before the Divine Majesty in heaven is not the realm of transcendence. Furthermore, the sanctuary is the context for understanding that God is able to reveal Himself in the specific location of the heavenly sanctuary and of the earthly sanctuary, as well as simultaneously dwelling throughout the universe, and even outside or beyond the universe! God thus dwells in a created spatio-temporal reality in this universe and at the same time He dwells in an uncreated spatio-temporal reality that only He can inhabit. Thus, the sanctuary, which is a building in which God chooses to dwell, does not limit Him to the building. Instead it is the amazing revelation that comes from the doctrine of the sanctuary that informs us that He simultaneously dwells with his creatures in specific locations while at the same time He exists beyond the universe in a “place” that only God has access to.
Omnipresence can thus be understood as applying to this realm that only God has access to. In previous newsletters we shared that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all connected to the I AM. Since that is the case, all of them are omnipresent in transcendence, which again refers to an uncreated spatio-temporal reality that only God has access to. This “place” does not exist anywhere in the universe. Since omnipresence and immutability are interconnected with the I AM, Jesus as the I AM (John 8:58) remains omnipresent in the realm of transcendence. This is the realm of God’s private side in which no created being can enter. Nothing else in Scripture is stated about the nature of this reality, and we would do well to accept it by faith and to leave the secret things to God (Deut 29:29), instead of speculating concerning its nature.
Omnipresence, the Universe, and the Sanctuary
When God created the universe, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accommodated themselves to the new spatio-temporal reality that they created while at the same time they related and still relate to each other in transcendence. We will now briefly examine the interpretive role of the sanctuary regarding the issue of Jesus’ omnipresence in the universe during the incarnation.
When we allow the Bible to unfold its plain and obvious meaning, the only conclusion we can draw regarding the nature of the heavenly sanctuary is that it is a real building with two rooms that contain real furniture, and that the earthly sanctuary in Moses’ time and the temple built by Solomon is analogous to the heavenly sanctuary.
In the following passages, the description of Jesus is linked with throne and with the right hand of God in the context of the heavenly sanctuary:
- In Acts 2:30 it states that God “would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne.”
- Later in Acts 2:34 we read, “The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool”” (From Psalm 110:1; cf. Matt 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:43-43; Heb 1:13). Sitting on God’s throne and sitting on God’s right hand seem to by synonymous.
- Heb 8:1 “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens…”
- Heb 12:2 “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In the following passages, Christ is seated at the right hand, which is assumed to be by the throne:
- Mark 16:19 “So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.”
- Acts 2:33 “Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.”
- Acts 5:31 “Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
- Eph 1:20 “which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places…”
- Heb 1:3 “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”
- Heb 10:12 “But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God…”
- 1 Pet 3:22 “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.”
In Rev 1:13, Jesus is in the midst of the seven golden lampstands (Rev 2:1). In Rev 8:3 He is described as “another angel, having a golden censer” to offer incense “upon the golden altar which was before the throne” (Rom 8:34).
Consequences of Accepting Jesus’ Omnipresence during the Incarnation
If we allow these passages to unfold their plain and obvious meaning, then the only conclusion we can draw is that Jesus is not omnipresent in the universe. Over and over again the passages reveal that Christ is at a particular location, which is at the right hand by God’s throne; that He is in the midst of the lampstands; and that He is by the golden altar before the throne. The clear implication is that when He is in the midst of the candlesticks, He is not at the golden altar; and if that is the case, He is certainly not on earth. The only way we can make Jesus omnipresent during the incarnation is to have an allegorical/mystical view of the right hand of God like Martin Luther who stated that the right hand of God is everywhere; it is not a particular place in heaven. Luther clearly has an allegorical/mystical view of God and the sanctuary. For Luther, the heavenly sanctuary does not appear to be a real building in a particular location in heaven. So, if Jesus is omnipresent, one must read these passages in a mystical and allegorical way, and one must interpret the heavenly sanctuary in an allegorical and mystical way. The plain and obvious meaning of these texts that refer to real furniture in a real heavenly sanctuary is a safeguard against spiritualistic interpretations of the nature of Christ.
Furthermore, if it is true that Jesus is omnipresent during the incarnation, the consequence is that the plain and obvious meaning of the Bible passages above must be discarded; and that one must read them allegorically. In all of the passage quoted above there is a temporal sequence that begins with His earthly ministry that is then followed by His death, burial, resurrection, and finally being seated on the throne. These passages clearly imply that while He was on earth He was not seated in heaven; and that while He is in heaven, He is no longer on the earth. Moreover, while on the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Christ is omnipresent, how could He cry out “Why have you forsaken me” if He was by the Father’s side all along?
In John 14:2 Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am there you may be also.” Why would Jesus have to go if He is already there, and why would He have to come back if He’s already here?
Jesus’ omnipresence during the incarnation assumes that His divine nature is incapable of any temporal sequence. This is based on the Greek view of the I AM that then sets the stage for an omnipresent nature that is immutable even during the incarnation. Hence, the choice between Jesus is not omnipresent in the universe during the incarnation, and Jesus is omnipresent during the incarnation is really a choice about (1) whether we will employ a plain and obvious reading of Scripture or an allegorical reading of Scripture, (2) whether we employ a real sanctuary as our interpretive tool for solving this issue or whether we will assume the methods of Greek philosophy with the inevitable result of allegorizing the sanctuary and thus discarding the sanctuary as a tool to solve this issue.
The question we have dealt with in this newsletter, namely, is Jesus omnipresent during the incarnation, is closely tied to another question: is the Holy Spirit a third entity, or is the Spirit only the omnipresence of Jesus and/or the Father? We will deal with this question in the next newsletter.
Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word.” The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 4:45 (17:5).
St Augustine. The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, First Series, 39.
Martin Luther. Luther’s Works 55 Vols. American Ed., Edited by J. Pelikan, H. Lehmann and Hilton C. Oswald. St. Louis, MO: Fortress, 1955-1986. LW 37:213. For more examples from theologians like Origen (185-254), Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), Pope Leo the Great (400-461), John Calvin (1509-1546), and William G.T. Shedd (1820-1894), see Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology: Creation, Christ, Salvation (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2012), 531-533.