God: The Perfection of Beauty
A sermon preached by Joe Fleener on 20 January 2013 at Howick Baptist Church
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.
You can keep your Bibles open to Psalm 27. We’ll be looking at it again together in just a moment, or at least part of it.
This morning’s sermon is in some ways unusual – at least unusual for the normal diet here at Howick Baptist Church. Many of you who are part of the church family recognize that we purposely strive week after week to preach passages of Scripture. We often teach through whole books like Exodus or 1st Timothy and so forth. We believe that really ought to be the bread and butter of our Sunday teaching and preaching.
And yet there is a time and place for what might sometimes be known as topical sermons. Maybe you’d take a topic and think about that from Scripture. To be quite frank, it’s actually harder! It’s a lot more work to take a topic and think about what God is saying about this topic from all of Scripture. It’s a lot easier just to stick to a particular text. This morning is going to be a topical sermon. And it’s going to be perhaps a challenging one as far as even its content. But hopefully it’ll be an encouraging one as far as its application.
This particular kind of topical sermon sometimes might be known as a doctrinal sermon. The reason for that is because we’re actually going to be looking at a particular doctrine. In this case, we’re going to be looking at an attribute of God, part of something of the nature and character of God, and I think one that we maybe don’t think about as often as we maybe should.
Although, we do sing about it a lot – every song we sang this morning has said something about the beauty of God! And yet I wonder how often we actually think about what it means for God to be the perfection of beauty.
And so we’re going to think about that today: think about what that means, and think about why that matters. And really that’s just two simple objectives. If I can accomplish that this morning, if we can understand more clearly from the Bible what it means that God is the perfection of beauty, and why that matters to our life, then we will have gotten somewhere productive today. I would suggest that the first part of this is going to be more challenging than it might sound.
1. Beauty: what it means
A dictionary definition
Beauty. What is it? What do we normally think of when we think of beauty? Well, let me give you a definition from good old Webster. And I think it actually does quite helpfully summarise what we normally think of when we think of beauty.
Webster says beauty is defined as:
“An assemblage of graces, or an assemblage of properties in the form of the person or any other object, which pleases the eye. In the person, due proportion or symmetry of parts constitutes the most essential property to which we annex the term beauty. In the face, the regularity and symmetry of the features, the color of the skin, the expression of the eye, are among the principal properties which constitute [what we call] beauty.
But as it is hardly possible to define all the properties of beauty, we may observe in general that beauty consists in whatever pleases the eye of the beholder: whether in the human body, in a tree, in a landscape, or any other object.”
You know, this definition is quite interesting. Whether we realise it or not, dictionaries get their definitions primarily because of the way terms are used. And you know that, and you can see that definitions have changed over time.
Webster is defining beauty here in a very interesting way because you can see at the beginning of the definition that Webster’s attempting to acknowledge that beauty has some objectivity to it. You can objectively say whether something is beautiful or not. But, the definition ends in a completely subjective way, basically saying that at the end of the day it’s in the eye of the beholder. What’s beautiful is purely up to a person’s own personal conclusion.
And I would say that that is the way that most of us in the English-speaking world would think about and use the term beauty. The term “Beauty being in the eye of the beholder” is an incredibly well-known phrase – it’s something that we either hear, or use all the time. But historically, that’s a very new concept.
Beauty: objective or subjective?
According to a couple of encyclopaedias on philosophy, beauty was understood to be completely objective until the 18th century. Prior to the time of the Enlightenment, beauty was defined as objective measurements and was not restricted to what can be perceived by our senses.
In other words, prior to the 18th century, beauty was understood as not being something that you determine, because you like how it looks, you like how it feels, you like how it tastes, you like how it sounds. Beauty was something that could be evaluated based upon some objective criteria. Some things were objectively beautiful and some things were objectively not. And you might think something is beautiful, but if it’s not objectively, doesn’t matter what you think – it’s not! That was true up until about 300 years ago.
In fact, according to Aristotle, within creation, that which displays the purest form of beauty… is maths. It was mathematics, or the mathematical sciences, that was seen as being that which was most pure within the creation world.
2 + 2 = 4. That sounds so simple and basic but it actually is quite profound.
Why does 2 + 2 = 4? We don’t know – it just does! It’s the way God created the universe. And that is, in itself, an amazing thing.
The beauty of God
So the question comes: “What does the Bible say about beauty?” But more specifically, I want to know not what the Bible says about beauty in general, but I want to look at this very interesting reality – this very interesting truth – that the Bible actually talks about God as being the perfection of beauty. God Himself!
We’re not going to be looking at all of Psalm 27. Because this is a topical message, I’m just drawing our attention particularly to verse 4. And then I want to look at a couple of other passages and think about this as a big picture thought.
Notice what David says in Psalm 27:4. He says:
“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.”
And this isn’t the only place this concept comes up. I’ll give you some verses and then you can write them down. In Psalm 50:2, we see that God’s city, Zion, is described as “the perfection of beauty and from there God shines forth His glory.”
In Psalm 96:1-6, we see:
“… strength and beauty are God’s sanctuary.”
God dwells in the perfection of beauty. The NIV translates beauty there as glory, which is actually not uncommon in the Bible. Glory and beauty are sometimes translated the same, although they are actually two different Hebrew words.
In Isaiah 28:5, it says that God Himself will be:
“… a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people.”
God will be this treasure of beauty to His people.
Isaiah 33:17 says that God promises that “His faithful people will behold the beauty of the coming King.”
God described as beauty is not an unusual thing within the Bible. You might be thinking, “Well it’s not that big of a deal Joe”. Well I think it is – we’ll about it in just a moment. See, David is pleading with God that he might be able to behold the beauty of the Lord! The longing of his soul is that he might be able to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord!
An unfamiliar attribute of God
What does this say about God, and that God would be the perfection of beauty? Traditionally among many Christians, they’ve tried to come up with categories of the attributes of God. God has been described in a variety of ways. He’s revealed Himself in Scripture. Some of these will be familiar to us, things like love, goodness, wrath and jealousy, righteousness, holiness, glory. These are all terms we’re familiar with, many of us, and they’re many of the attributes of God.
Some of them are less familiar to us though, like beauty, or unity, or aseity. These are terms that, again, are attributes of God. But what’s important is that you can’t speak accurately about God by only speaking about one of His attributes.
So God isn’t just love. God is love, and He’s holy. God is love, and He’s just. God is all of His attributes, all the time, in perfect harmony. He is always expressing all of His attributes perfectly, all the time. He is never just one of His attributes.
Beauty is seen as what’s called one of His “summary attributes” – in other words, it’s an attribute that holds all of the other attributes together. For God to be the perfection of beauty is basically saying that God Himself is the perfect possessor of all that is good and desirable.
It basically means, in fact, the beauty of God is that He is God! God is so magnificent. He Himself is beauty, because He Himself is the perfect harmony of everything that is truly good. Everything that is truly good is found in God. And it’s found in God in perfect symmetry, which makes God truly beautiful!
Now here’s what’s interesting though. God doesn’t have a physical body. We generally think about beauty being described as that which appeals to our senses – things that we feel, taste, hear, smell and see. How does that work with a God who is Spirit? He doesn’t have a body. There is no sensual perception – we can’t perceive God with our senses. God Himself is beautiful as a spirit being.
Fundamentally then, beauty is an objective reality not dependent upon our senses or any beholder. God is the perfection of beauty because He simply exists. He is the fullness of all perfection – by His very nature, everything that is good, pure, true and holy. He alone is truly glorious, He alone is truly beautiful. God is the perfection of beauty, and He always has been!
God didn’t need to create the world or people to display His beauty. God is a Triune Being – He is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And so together as God, before there was anything, God was perfectly expressing His beauty, His nature, His character. Everything that was truly good and righteous and holy was there in God displayed, the three persons of the Trinity enjoying all that is truly eternally pure and beautiful. God didn’t need us to display His beauty.
God doesn’t fit in your head
Now, let me catch you where you are. Your head’s probably hurting. And that’s OK. This blows our mind, doesn’t it? And it should!
You’ve heard me say it before: if God was someone who you could figure out and fit into your head, and there was nothing left of God to understand because you could finally understand God and all of His details, and you could put Him in your head… you know what? You would be in big trouble. Because God would now be you! And we would be doomed.
God has to be bigger than us. He has to be more magnificent, more glorious, more profoundly amazing. The only being that can truly be described as awesome. God has to be that, or He’s not God! And so it’s OK if our heads hurt when we think about the bigness, the vastness, the glory, the beauty of God. I’d suggest in some ways that if doesn’t, we’re not thinking hard enough about God.
Friends, don’t settle for what you already know about God. Or you already know of Him. God is truly worthy of all of your life, of all of your being, of all of your heart, of all of your mind, of all of your soul. Don’t ever stop (as long as you have life in you) thinking about desiring to know God deeper and more intimately. We’ve been called to love Him with all of our minds. And it’s worth considering beauty.
2. Beauty: why it matters
Beauty, as defined as God being the perfection of beauty, is simply that God Himself is truly the perfect possessor of all that is good and pleasing and desirable.
So what are the implications of that? Again, I’ve referred to several verses, I’ve primarily looked at Psalm 27, in a moment I’ll look at a few others. But what are some of the practicals? “Oh this is really cool Joe, this is kind of an academic study, we can all go to sleep.” I hope you haven’t. I hope in a moment you’ll start to see that this is profoundly significant.
Are you captivated by His beauty?
My friends, I want to ask you – by your life, by the choices, your priorities, the attractions in your life – where do you find true beauty? What captivates your heart? What is captivating your mind, your imagination, your desires? Is it God?
Would your children, would your teens, would your spouse conclude by watching you, by seeing how you spend your time, your energy and your money – would they determine by that observation alone that you are more captivated by the glory and beauty of God? Or are you more captivated by the fleeting glory and beauty of this world?
You see, if you see something that is truly magnificently beautiful, and then you look at something else that the world claims to be beautiful, and you compare the two, you can’t possibly look at this and think that that’s worth giving your life to.
How could you turn away from the radiant glory of God that has captivated your heart and your soul, and look at something that (comparatively) just looks like a pile of rubbish? It might be the best this world has to offer, but it’s nothing compared to the beauty of God.
But is that true in your life? Is that true in your heart’s desire, in your use of your time and your energy? Is that true about your priorities? Are you organising your life and your family in such a way that you are directing your attention, your children’s attention to the glorious beauty of God in Christ? Are you allowing your children to be captivated and enamoured by the fleeting pleasures of this world?
My friends, if you still have children at home, you play a fundamental role in helping your children develop tastes for that which is truly beautiful. By the way you structure your family, by what you allow on your television, by what books you read, by what you talk about, by how you respond to things in their life and things in the world, all of that forms the context that your children are developing tastes. They will have an appetite for something. What is it that they desire? What is their appetite attuned to? Is it that God is truly glorious, and it is worth giving your life and everything for the glory of God? Or are they more captivated by the newest cool song on iTunes, or the newest cool toys that this world has to offer?
Are you making things of true beauty?
Here’s another thought. And I’m only going to scratch the surface on this one. But I think there are some people in here that might have the time and opportunity and probably gifts I don’t have, to think about this even more deeply.
We as created beings made in the image of God, we can make things of beauty, can’t we? You look around our world and we see things that people make. And some of them are magnificent. However, here’s what I want us to think about: if beauty is truly in God alone, and is therefore an objective characteristic of God, then whatever we make, if it’s truly going to be a thing of beauty, it must in some way reflect the character and nature of God. If it doesn’t, no matter how many people in their eyes might say it’s beautiful, objectively it’s not.
Beauty is an attribute of God. Beauty therefore is objective. Therefore, not everything – not every piece of music, not every piece of art, is beautiful. Beauty is not inherently subjective. For something to be truly beautiful, it must reflect as much as possible in a fallen world, the character and nature of God in some way.
Now here’s the interesting part though: the character and nature of God cannot be displayed fully in the physical universe. Therefore, the display of God-honouring beauty will not be limited to one particular art form or style. I think that’s significant.
First of all, I think it’s significant to think about – if you are someone – and what I mean by creating, I mean music, art, design, literature, building, landscapes, creating orderliness in your home, structure within your family. This is an expression of the nature of God. God is an orderly God; He desires that all things be done decently and in order. It doesn’t have to be some artwork that’s going to hang in the Metropolitan Art Gallery. It could just simply be the fact that you are trying to live your life in a way that displays the beauty of God.
The point is that beauty is not left to whatever you think it looks like. It can’t be, if beauty is an objective characteristic of God. And yet when we are talking about forms of art, like music and artworks and literature, and so forth, I think it’s important to recognise that it’s going to take a multitude of styles, a multitude of forms to express the character and nature of God. And yet in each individual piece, it must display some aspect of the nature and character of God, or it’s not truly beautiful, no matter how much it says.
God can make you spiritually beautiful
All right, that was for the art people. Let me think about some other implications.
If God is truly the perfection of beauty, here’s a thought for you. Then it’s not possible for someone to have sinned against you in such a way as to make you beyond purifying. It’s not possible for someone to have sinned against you in such a way as to make you beyond God’s ability to make you spiritually beautiful.
Some of you have been sinned against in ways you would prefer no one would ever know. And yet you know, God knows. You feel dirty. You feel like damaged goods. You feel like you are doomed to live the rest of your life with the leftovers, the seconds. Because of things that have happened to you. Sins that other people have committed against you.
But it’s not true. It’s not true that you have been sinned against in such a way that you are beyond God’s ability to make pure. To make clean. To make spiritually beautiful.
Think about it – it has to be true. Because if God is in Himself the perfection of beauty, then only He can truly make something else beautiful and pure, and there is nothing that can get in His way. You come to God with whatever baggage, whatever has happened to you, whatever has been done to you in this world, and you cast yourself upon God. God can purify you. God can cleanse you. God can clean you. God can free you from anything that’s ever happened in your life. He can, because He is truly magnificently beautiful, and therefore He can make His children spiritually beautiful.
I certainly do not want to hint that God will take away all physical consequences of anything that’s happened to our life – things that we’ve done or others have done. God promises to free us from that in eternity. And yet in this world, we can know that our hearts have been made pure. That we stand before God in His beauty, [like David preached].
You are not beyond purifying
If God is the perfection of beauty, then it’s not possible for you – here’s the other side – it’s not possible for you to have sinned in such a way as to make you beyond purifying. God says in 1 John 1:9 that “if you confess your sins, God is faithful and just to forgive you and to cleanse you from all – ALL unrighteousness!”
It is not possible for you to stand and say, “But God could never forgive me. God could never take away what I have done.” Yes He can! You cast yourself upon the mercy of God and cry out to Christ for forgiveness, and He says He is able to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. And of course He can, because He is the expression of beauty. He is the most beautiful being in the universe, and out of Him comes forgiveness, and cleansing purity.
You see my Christian friend, this is the other half of that well-known Westminster Catechism question: “What is the chief end of man?” You know, the chief end of man is, it says: “To glorify God”, but so often we stop there. But the chief end of man according to the Westminster Catechism, which I believe is based upon Scripture, says it’s “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”.
You see, David here longs to be able to gaze at the beauty of the Lord. This is an expression of his desire to enjoy all of who God is! David longs for a time to just simply bask in the beauty of God, to enjoy Him forever. I actually think in the context, David longs to personally be able to gaze upon the temple of God. Remember, David wanted to build God a temple. He wanted to build Him a magnificently beautiful structure. God had already given the details of the tabernacle and it was beautiful. The temple would far surpass that. David wanted to build that, and he had already started collecting the material that would go into the building of the temple.
But God said to David, no it won’t be you, it will be your son “who will build My temple”. And I think David longs to see the earthly display of the beauty of God that would be displayed in the temple. But what David doesn’t realise at this point, at the time of writing, is there’s something far more beautiful. And that’s not a temple made with hands, but it’s to be in the eternal presence of the Beautiful One, forever.
We can enjoy what David longed for! We can enjoy being in the presence of God and we can enjoy Him and His beauty, knowing that His beauty is all-surpassing, is glorious, purifies us and makes us clean.
Seeing the Beautiful One
But how? How is that possible? How is it possible that the God of the universe, the One who is the perfection of beauty, who is indescribable, fully wonderful, beyond comprehension, how is it possible for Him to stoop so low as to meet me who is so dirty and unclean?
Here’s something for you to think about. All throughout the Old Testament, God spoke through His prophets. And he told His prophets to tell His people to look forward, to anticipate the King, the coming Messiah, the coming Redeemer. And many times throughout the Old Testament, this coming King was described as a Beautiful One.
In fact, Hosea 14:6 has a promise that “God’s people would be able to see the King in His beauty”.
And Zechariah 9:17 [spoke of] “the coming of the King in His beauty”. The people longed to see this beautiful, magnificent, promised King!
But open your Bibles to Isaiah 53. And see something very, very significant. Isaiah 53 says this Promised King — this Redeemer, this Messiah, the one who would come that the people longed to see, and they longed to see the beauty of God displayed through this King – what does Isaiah 53:2 tell us?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
You see the significance? Jesus, being fully God, Himself the perfection of beauty, being God Himself, having the perfection of all things that are good, Himself being objectively beautiful… set all that aside, and entered into human flesh.
He became a man. And he was not beautiful. There was nothing in Him that was beautiful. There was no beauty that we should desire Him.
Jesus – understand when I’m saying this – Jesus became ugly, so that we could become beautiful.
Jesus set aside the full use of all of His godly attributes, and He became a poverty-stricken, dirty man walking on dirty streets; living in a dirty town; born in a dirty, ugly stable, with the smell and stench of livestock around Him. And He died a most ugly death on what seemed to be the most ugly tree ever in humanity. And He Himself had no physical beauty that we would behold Him, and yet he was the Beautiful One!
And He did this so that His people might be able to be made clean, and made pure.
My friend, if you don’t know this to be true, if you don’t truly believe this, then the same beauty of God, which gives great hope to those who know Christ, that same beauty will burn, blind and destroy you someday. Do you realise that?
My friend, it’s just like looking at the sun. If you go out and turn your eyes upon the sun with no filter, or nothing to distract the sun’s direct rays upon your eyes, your eyes will be burned and you will be blind. But if you use some protective lens, or some way to indirectly look upon the sun, you can enjoy the fullness of its radiance.
It’s the same thing of God: to gaze at the beauty of God will destroy you, if you don’t look through the filter of the Son. If you don’t come to the beauty of God, if you don’t come to understand that God is truly beautiful and therefore blinding, and you must put Jesus on.
You must take His beauty. You must take His perfection. You must take His righteousness. You must take His glory. And you must cover yourself with Him, so that you can then gaze upon the beauty of God. And what was once a terror will become your joy, both now and forever. Let us pray.
Dear Heavenly Father, I thank You that You have sent Your Son, who set aside His beauty. Who set aside the full use of His godliness, His divine attributes. Who made Himself flesh, but a man. Who died an undeserved death so that we could be forgiven.
Lord I pray that we gaze, as we look upon Jesus, and see Him in His fullness and grace… I pray Lord if we are non-Christians today, if we are people who still do not believe that Jesus is fully God, do not believe that He died on the cross for our sins. I pray that we would be captivated by Him. I pray that we might see that without Christ, You, God, will destroy us.
I pray Lord for those who are Christians, and perhaps this world has captivated our hearts. We have been deceived, we have bought a lie, we have given ourselves over to those things in this world that claim to be things of beauty and things of joy and things of pleasure, but in fact are not, cannot, and never were designed to be.
I pray Lord that we would turn our eyes upon Jesus, and as we do all of the things of this world would grow strangely dim… that His beauty would so captivate our hearts… that we would long, like David, for nothing else than to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, forever. In Jesus’s name, Amen.