Due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, orders will not be processed until November 30th.

Podcast: Understanding the Presence of God (Ryan Lister)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

God with Us

In this episode, Ryan Lister discusses what it means when the Bible says that God is with us. He unpacks the idea of the presence of God throughout Scripture, addresses common misconceptions about what that phrase really means, and highlights how Jesus—God in the flesh—stands as the ultimate example of God drawing near to his people.

The Presence of God

J. Ryan Lister

This book explores the importance of God’s presence in the Bible and how it relates to his plan for the world, helping readers understand what we really mean when we say God is with us.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:32 - What Is the Presence of God?

Matt Tully
Ryan, thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.

Ryan Lister
It's great being here.

Matt Tully
So, the presence of God—it's a topic that on the one hand feels as familiar as your pillow. We hear that phrase, or some version of it, bandied about all the time. Whether it's in music or in books or in our prayers, as evangelical Christians we talk about the presence of God all the time. Yet, I think if we were to be pressed to explain what the presence of God actually is, we would probably have a hard time with that. We're actually unsure what that even means. What do you think that means? What is the presence of God?

Ryan Lister
That's a great question, and I've been convicted of that myself. That was where this whole project and idea came from is actually being someone who was saying “presence of God” a lot, but never actually thinking about what it means. It just became evangelical white noise. I began to see, Wait. This is a really important idea. It's central to what our Bible's are telling us about God and ourselves. To summarize it very, very quickly, I would say that the presence of God is getting at two major things. The first idea is that the presence of God is where this whole story is going. It's eschatological—

Matt Tully
What does that mean?

Ryan Lister
Teleological may be a better word, but that is an even harder word that you have to lay out. It's goal-oriented—it's the objective of this redemptive storyline that God has given us and that God has put us in. All it really means is that there's a goal. The presence of God is where our story is going. You see that at the beginning and end of your Bible. It begins in a garden filled with his presence, and it ends in a garden city filled with his presence. So it's teleological, it's objective, it's goal-driven. Simultaneously, it's also the means—or the instrument—by which that goal is accomplished. There's a relational and a redemptive aspect to it. He is drawing near to be with us, and especially after the fall he is drawing near to redeem us so that we can be with him; so that we can be with him forever eschatologically, eternally. So those are the categories—it's a manifest presence, and it's mediated. There is distinction, and you want to hold that distinction between the Creator and the creature, as well as the Redeemer and the redeemed. That's why there's so much mystery wrapped around it. He's telling us all about it while at the same time we can't grasp it in full. What we're talking about at that particular point is we're talking about a God who is transcendent—who is other than and distinct from us. That's a wonderful and a glorious thing. But he's also one who has come near to us. So that's a mysterious thing that we have to dive deep into our Bibles to understand. He's got to tell us how that works, so it pushes us back to him to be the one that demonstrates what this presence of God is.

05:28 - Omnipresence and the Presence of God

Matt Tully
I want to return to that tension between God's nearness to us and his transcendence, but taking a step back—maybe there's someone listening who is thinking, Wait a minute. The presence of God—I get that. I always thought that was just the fact that God is everywhere and that God is omnipresent. They may have learned that term in Bible college or Sunday school. How does that fit into—the fact that God is everywhere around us and he's always with us—this biblical idea of the presence of God that you've just sketched out that feels a little bit more specific than what we often think about?

Ryan Lister
For most us us that's going to be our default position if we're thinking in larger theological categories, especially if we have some sort of background in systematic theology when we're walking through those omni-categories of who God is—omnipotence and, in this case, omnipresence. That's very, very true. It's a true reality. What this concept is saying—or what I think God is trying to do more often than not in our Bibles—is to say, Yes, I am omnipresent in the sense that I am everywhere present. But the impetus of what he's doing in Scripture is to say, Yes, I am that; but I'm much, much more. Not only am I that, but I'm drawing near to you relationally. I'm drawing near to you to be in covenant with you. There's more than just, This is who I am out there or all around—if you're thinking in omnipresent terms—but I'm also here with you. A lot of times this is connected to Psalm 139 which is pushing the idea of God's omnipresence— . . . where shall I flee from your presence? (Ps. 139:7) That's where those ideas are coming from; but if you even read that whole psalm, that whole psalm is driving you back to the fact that he knows you. He knows you relationally. He knows the words before they're formed on your tongue. So the psalmist is pushing a connection there to show you yes, he is this in this omnipresent realm—that's very, very true. But that's also connected to the purpose to be with his people. You have this refrain throughout Scripture pushing that concept of he has a people; there's a people; I will be your God, and you will be my people. That's a glorious, glorious phrase because what it's saying is that the transcendent, omnipresent God who is totally other than us has decided—in his transcendence—to be with us, to make us his people. And the only way that happens is if the transcendent God does it for us.

Matt Tully
I think when we speak of omnipresence as a systematic category and an attribute of God, it does seem to primarily carry a spatial type of dimension. For example, literally, in this room, I know God is here and I know God is in the next room over as well and he's on the other side of the world. But you're saying that, in terms of the Bible and how the Bible speaks of this theme of the presence of God, it's more than just a spatial type of reality. It actually speaks to the relationship that God desires to have with us as his people.

Ryan Lister
Yes, that's exactly right. That gets to that second point of the whole Biblical framework for the way that God talks about his presence. It's got the objective aspect, but the agency, means, instrument of how he is present. When revelation rises up in our Bible—when we see God doing things—he's entering into his own story. So you've got these great manifest expressions of God coming down—for lack of a better term. In Genesis 4 he's there with Cain and Abel, there's relationship. I think we go quickly past that, but that's one of the most beautiful expressions of this because you've just come out of the fall. One of the consequences of the fall is that they were exiled from Eden and from God's presence; and yet, here is God dealing with sinners. He's dealing with Cain and Abel and others who are outside of that initial covenant presence, if you will. He's working; he's in the story, and it just keeps going from there. There's presence and there's mystery. In the exodus, you have God who is using Moses as a mediator to bring people out of Egypt to a promised land. So there's a people that he's creating for a place that he's going to give them so that he can be present with them. The way that is accomplished is that he draws near. You have cloud and fire—those are the images that you're given. Those are the perfect images because you can see them, but you can't grasp them, you can't touch them, there's distinction. Yet, there's presence. There's manifestation of some kind, but it's not within our control.

11:56 - The Holy of Holies and the Presence of God

Matt Tully
One of the most fascinating and perhaps one of the most confusing concepts related to the exodus and the wilderness wandering—and even Jerusalem and the temple once they were established in the Holy Lands—was this idea of the Holy of Holies. This physical space where God—in some sense—dwelt more profoundly, or more physically. It's the place where people could not enter. It was dangerous for humans to be in except for one person once a year. What do you think the Holy of Holies—whether in the tabernacle or the temple—teaches us about God's presence?

Ryan Lister
I think in many ways it's pushing us to say, This is on his terms. This is not something that we conjured up that we thought would be a great thing for our religion. This comes from God. It's directed by God. It's ordained by him; it's controlled by him; it's commanded by him. This is what is at the center of your life. What the Holy of Holies is doing is saying, I'm covenantally near. I'm with you. Ultimately, I think it's pointing us forward to Jesus and his coming to tabernacle with us (John 1). It's pushing us forward. I think in many ways—and I'm teasing this out right here as we talk—I think that same idea is taking place in the Gospels pretty consistently. You have God defining who Immanuel is, who Jesus is, what he came to do, what he is coming to be present for. You have all these people who are sitting there, with their conceptions of who the messiah will be and what he will accomplish, but Jesus comes on the scene and undermines them all. He says, No. Salvation is from the Lord drawing near to you, and it's going to be done in a way that is beyond your own conceptions. You know that weird refrain in your Bibles where Jesus is constantly telling people, Don't tell anybody who I am?

Matt Tully
What's behind that?

Ryan Lister
I think what's taking place is he's holding things back, keeping the crowds at bay as long as he can, to allow him to have the cross and the empty tomb be the lenses through which we now understand who this Immanuel is. He has come to be King, but he comes first to be a suffering servant-king. We don't have a conception of God doing that and coming to accomplish that. You've got this mind-bogglingly reality that God is in the flesh, and God is in the flesh to be a ransom for us and to die in our place. So I think that “messianic secret” is allowing Jesus to have time and space to accomplish exactly what that part of redemption is, what that first coming is to accomplish. I've talked with people in the church about the messianic secret and they say they don't understand it. You've probably felt it yourself—you look at the disciples and you say, Why don't these guys get it? They're so dense. Well, it's because we're on this side of the cross. We're reading everything through the lens of the empty tomb, where they don't have that yet. I think that ties us back to Holy of Holies ideas. There is mystery, and God has to define what Israel is to be. God is defining them as a people. He's setting them apart so that they can take that out into the rest of the world. I think that's what's happening in Jesus himself. The Holy of Holies is here and he's defining what that looks like. He's defining what it means to be the Servant-King first before the conquering king in the second coming.

Matt Tully
You speak of Jesus as the Holy of Holies, the presence of God made flesh, Immanuel—God with us—and yet, he was so much more accessible than the Holy of Holies was. We see at his death that the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two. Speak to the fact that in Jesus the presence of God is now more accessible to us than it ever was before.

Ryan Lister
In Jesus you have God's presence literally manifest before you—it's incarnated. There's time and space with Jesus; whereas, you have a God outside of time and space—or beyond—now you have a God in time and space. That's a massive thing that we weren't ready for, a development that many people weren't looking for.

Matt Tully
It's hard to even wrap your mind around that. God exists outside of time and space; he created time and space; yet, he is truly, fully other. And yet, somehow he entered in and became a part of his creation.

Ryan Lister
That's right. This just goes back to where this whole conversation began—this becomes part of that white noise. We talk about it, we become so familiar with it, we don't ponder it and allow it in places where we worship him. The other reality is we have these hints—for example, the transfiguration. You have Jesus demonstrating that yes, he is incarnated, but there is something else going on that is beyond us. When the transfiguration happens, the response is, Let's build tabernacles; let's stop here and worship you.

Matt Tully
Is that intentional? In that passage is there a harkening back and alluding to the idea of, God is with us here right now. Let's camp out right here with him?

Ryan Lister
Yes, I think so. I think it's pointing us back and pulling us forward saying what the institutions of the tabernacle and the temple were doing is pushing our eyes forward, and it's fulfilled here. There's something beautiful about the progressiveness of what God has done in his revelation to us and for us.

19:44 - Common Misconceptions about the Presence of God

Matt Tully
What do you think would be a common misunderstanding, or maybe something that you think most Christians listening right now would be surprised to learn about the way that the Bible speaks about the presence of God?

Ryan Lister
Going back to what we were talking about earlier, I was blown away by the fact of the relational categories. Here's what oftentimes happens, especially today—we want to have a relationship with God. We tend to be the ones who want to define that relationship. What Scripture does is it says, God is here to relate to you. It's done on his own terms. And that's exactly what we need. We don't need to be the ones who are defining or determining how we relate to God. It needs to be the other way around. When we're trying to force God into our own paradigms, when we're trying to tell him how he should relate to us, we've got the whole Creator-creature distinction upside down.

Matt Tully
What might that look like? What are some examples of ways that we often try to define the relationship that we have with God apart from what he has said?

Ryan Lister
I think probably one of the most practical, day to day ways is to just watch how we pray. When we pray, we oftentimes—and I'm guilty of this—we oftentimes conceptualize God as this genie in a bottle. If I pray—that's the rubbing of the lamp—he'll come out and he'll grant me my three wishes today. That's not necessarily the impetus and direction of prayer. So, we want to say yes, God has established a relationship and made a way to the throne of grace; but we need to just back up and see how that was accomplished. We need to feel the weight of it, to understand what it took for us to even be able to pray before the Lord and to have Christ interceding on our behalf—even right now. So just to let that set in before we walk in before his throne—just to say, This is the way my life should be run.

Matt Tully
Yes, I think prayer is a great example of that where it is so familiar. We are so used to, as Christians, just assuming that we have access to God in prayer—direct access to God. And yet, that kind of nearness and privilege of drawing near to him is not something that just happened.

Ryan Lister
That's right. It didn't just happen. And please don't hear me saying, Don't bring your needs to God. That is exactly what he wants us to do. But bring your needs to God through the filter of who God is and who we are—understanding that covenant relationship; understanding what it took to accomplish this relationship to take place; understanding what his presence means. To give an example of that, just rejoicing in your spouse. If you're just sitting there telling them everything you want from them—you wake up in the morning and you give them a litany of, This is what I demand of you without ever pulling back and just rejoicing and being with them and loving the fact that they love you and you have this life with one another. Those needs you have are connected to a real relationship. Going back to God here, it goes back to that Creator-creature distinction—I'm here to worship you. It's not the other way around. I think the presence of God theme holds that tension really, really well. It says God has drawn near, and God has drawn near to change you and for you to become in this covenant—for you to be in his kingdom. That's what Jesus is talking about in the Gospels. He's the gift.

Matt Tully
When you think about the way that we as a Christian culture think about the presence of God, I want you to finish this sentence in as many ways as you can: The presence of God is not . . . .

Ryan Lister
The presence of God is not some mystical idea. When you plug the term “presence of God” into your Google search bar, all kinds of crazy things come flooding at you. Oftentimes it's connected to this sort of mystical approach. The “presence of God” is a term that many people try to fill in with their own ideas and their own concepts. What we want to say—or, what I think God is wanting to say—is that it's something that he gets to determine.

Matt Tully
What if someone's listening and feels like, That limiting of the presence of God feels like that's invalidating my experience of feeling God drawing near to me—what I feel in certain moments of worship or reading my Bible or just being out in nature. I feel the presence of God draw near to me in a unique and powerful way. What would you say to that?

Ryan Lister
I say that's a great thing. This is one of the great aspects of this biblical theme is that it weds these two concepts together of both the normative and the sense that this is God's speech to us, he's the one who's defining these things. But simultaneously there's an experiential reality to it too. I don't want to say that the experiential is invalid. I just want to say that the experiential should be tied and tethered and coupled with what God has told us this really is. So we want to allow him to set the playing field for which we can actually enjoy his presence. Just to push that image a little bit more—if you say okay, I want you to go play a game of baseball, but the rules are completely up to you and you get to determine what it actually looks like. Then everybody is on the field—maybe there's not even a field!—if everybody is doing their own thing, it's not going to be as enjoyable. Whereas if you go out and play by the pre established rules, it's all set up for you—that's something that you can enjoy. That's something where you know how this is supposed to be going. I think that's what we want to do. So, to boil that all down—and this is going back to your question—I would say the presence of God is not outside of God's authority. I think that's where the rub often is, because as a culture—and as sinners, like myself—we often struggle with being under anyone's authority and being submitted to. By definition, by our being creatures, we're already under his authority and redemption is a part of seeing the beauty and the glory of that structure and putting ourselves in that and allowing him to speak into my experience; allowing the Lord to say and to determine and to filter and to bring repentance to my experience. But also to bring more joy to my experience. So I actually think what that does, as with the baseball example, the rules and the structure gives you more freedom to enjoy it. I think it's the same thing with God's presence. This is who I am, and that's really important when you walk into, Okay, how am I going to experience God's presence?

Matt Tully
I think what you said at the very beginning about what the end goal is of this biblical theme of God's presence—when we interpret and think about this concept through the lense of what the Bible actually says about God's presence and about what he's ultimately working towards in all of this, that does help to give a deeper significance. It's better than just some kind of vague sentimentality that we might come up with on our own that kind of feels good in the moment, but it lacks the substance and the depth that Scripture gives us when it comes to this topic.

Ryan Lister
That's exactly right. I would say that's the case for the presence of God, but it's also the case for all of what's happening in God's redemptive works. Everything is better than we can imagine. Everything is done in ways that we would not have, and it's exactly what we need and exactly what brings us ultimate joy. And going back to that idea, I've found it extremely helpful to know that I'm put in my place—that may sound weird—in God's redemptive work. I can look back and I can see what he has accomplished through Christ. I can look at the here and now and say, God's presence is with us. It's indwelling us in the Spirit, and God's presence is using the church to prepare us. And it doesn't just stop in the present moment. I think a lot of us tend to just stay in that present moment, or we're drawn to the past and we just dwell on either our guilt or shame or other things. What this does is it says there's a future to this too, and it's all connected. What's happening in my church when I'm hearing the Word of God preached, when the Lord's Supper is taking place, when I'm interacting with that strange person that I just don't connect with and they don't connect with me, I know that the Lord is using that in a beautifully awkward way to prepare me for what is to come. There's a sanctification that is taking place so that I may enjoy that goal of God's presence.

31:32 - Hell and the Presence of God

Matt Tully
Most conservative evangelicals would believe that the Bible teaches a doctrine of eternal punishment—the doctrine of hell. Sometimes it seems like hell is described as a place devoid of the presence of God. At times, in the way we talk about it, it seems like the defining characteristic of hell is that it is a place that he is not. What do you think about that? How does that fit with what the Bible teaches about God's presence?

Ryan Lister
I think there's an aspect of that. I would put it in the category that there is not a relational or redemptive presence of God in hell—there's not a covenant reality that is what all of Scripture is building towards and accomplishing right here, right now. I do think that's absent; but I do think there's an element of God's presence in the sense of bringing wrath and pouring out punishment. Those who are under the curse are experiencing God in his full holiness, his full justice. There is still an experience of his presence, but it's not through redemptive and relational categories. It's through categories of punishment.

32:56 - Hope and the Presence of God

Matt Tully
In your opinion, what is the most misunderstood Bible passage related to the presence of God?

Ryan Lister
Isaiah 57:15 holds together God's other-than-ness, his transcendence, and also connects it to his immanence. But many times we sort of parse those out, whichever one we lean towards and like to emphasize. This is Isaiah 57:15:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place . . . "

So there, you see that other-than-ness, that distinction. What does it mean to be inhabiting eternity? That sort of concept is there to break our minds.

Matt Tully
That's the goal of it.

Ryan Lister
Yeah. That's the goal of it. And that's a gloriously beautiful text telling us about this distinct God, this One who is other than. But it keeps going on. And that's what I would say—just keep reading. Oftentimes that's hard to do, but it's a huge move. So it continues to go on and says,

and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Iaisah 57:15)

So you see here in the Prophets this declaration of who the Lord is. He is other than and he is the one who draws near. And he draws near to who? To the lowly, those who are broken, to the contrite. And that's a huge and wonderful hope. When I see this, I want to help people bring these together. What it does is it says the way we feel and the hurt we have and the brokenness and the sin that's piled up in our lives and around us from others, there's actually an answer. There's actually an answer from one who is outside of all this who can actually do something about it. And not only does he do something about it, but he enters into the story to do just that—to accomplish it; to deal directly with what keeps us from our only hope. And how does he do that? The hope draws near. He comes to us to accomplish these things. That's oftentimes missed, but it's at the very heart of the gospel, and it's the very heart of our Christian lives.

Matt Tully
Ryan, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast and sharing from your own study and the way that God has used his Word to change your understanding of his presence. We appreciate you being here.

Ryan Lister
Thank you so much, Matt. It's been a blast.


Popular Articles in This Series

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.

View All


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.