Now unto the King eternal
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. 1 Timothy 1:17
God is King. All the descriptions of God in verse 17 are describing God as King. This is the main thing in Paul’s mind as he praises God. He is King.
But God is not just another King. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the supreme ruler over all the universe. He is sovereign. “The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all” (Ps. 103:19). This is one of the reasons why God is blessed; he is blessed because no plan of his can ever be thwarted. His counsel can never be defeated. He is not a frustrated God.
God is King over all. The entire universe belongs to him. He has made it and holds sway over it. Therefore, our sins are not just human foibles; they are treasonous acts against our Sovereign. He is the Master and we are his slaves. We live in his dominion. If you would be happy, you can only achieve it by his blessing. To hold out for happiness in rebellion against God in a universe ruled over by a sovereign God is pure futility.
God can dispense grace because he is King. He has the right and the resources to do so. No other being can dispense grace. No other person can or even has the right to grant you the forgiveness of your sins. But God can, and he does so to all who believe in his Son, the Lord.
God is eternal. What this means is that God is from everlasting to everlasting (Ps. 90:2). The human soul may live forever, but every human soul has a starting point. God has no starting point. He is independent of time. Jesus told the crowds, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). God told Moses to tell the people of Israel, “I AM THAT I AM. . . . Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (Exo. 3:14). This makes no sense unless God cannot be measured by time as we mortals are.
This staggers the imagination. Everything we know has a beginning. The universe has a beginning (Gen. 1:1; Jn. 1:1), and thus everything in it. We therefore cannot point to anything in the universe and say, “God’s eternity is like that.” Illustrations here would be almost blasphemous, and we can see why God is so revolted by idolatrous images.
What does this mean for us? It means that the bedrock of our hope is solid. God will defeat and outlast all his and our enemies. A few years ago, I read Ron Chernow's biography on George Washington. Reading it, I realized again that what defeated the British armies was not Washington’s genius in military strategy (he actually lost more battles than he won), but his staying power. He just outlasted the British. God, the King eternal, both defeats and outlasts his enemies. Jesus is able to save us “to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).
God is immortal. The word means “incorruptible” or “unchangeable.” Paul uses the same word in Rom. 1:23, “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man….” God is not only eternal; he is immortal, and thus unchangeable.
The fact that God does not change is full of hope for the believer. Paul says that he was an example for those who would hereafter believe on Jesus to everlasting life. How long “hereafter?” What if God changes his mind? But this is not a possibility, for God changes not. “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). God will not let a single promise of his fall to the ground. Once he has committed himself, he is committed forever.
God’s word does not change, and his promises do not change, because God himself does not change. We change in every sense of the word every day. Our bodies are growing older, feebler, bending toward the grave. But God is the same, and his years shall not fail.
God is invisible. One of the catechism questions I used to ask my children was, “Can you see God?” To which they were supposed to respond, “No, I cannot see God, but he always sees me.” John tells us, “No man hath seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18). He is invisible.
Why is this so important? It is important because our eyes are designed to see material objects. The fact that God is invisible tells us that God is not material. He is not part of the stuff of the universe.
When the first Russian cosmonaut came back from space and said he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that going into space to find God is like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle to find Shakespeare. God made the universe; he is not part of its furniture. We should not look for God as if he were hiding behind the moon.
This is the reason why God is immortal. Created things are mortal, and they do not have life in themselves. But God is not created; he is the creator. And as the creator of material objects, he is not himself material. He is invisible, and thus, eternal and immortal.
God is wise. The wisdom of God is not even comparable with the wisdom of men: his is infinitely above ours. In fact, Paul tells us elsewhere that the wisdom of men is foolishness with God (1 Cor. 1:19,20). God, speaking through Isaiah tells us:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8,9)
That God is wise means that we can trust in him, even when we cannot see why. Our eyes are dim, but God sees all things. Nothing is hidden from God. He knows the best way that we should go.
God is unique. When Paul says, “the only wise God,” I don’t think he meant for us to take “only” as referring to God’s wisdom alone (in fact, the better Greek texts omit the word “wise”). God in every sense of the word is the “only God.” There is no one other than him. And I think that one of the reasons behind Paul’s choice of words here in this verse to describe God – eternal, immortal, and invisible – is to highlight the uniqueness of God. We cannot call ourselves these things. There are communicable attributes and then there are incommunicable attributes, and the latter is what Paul is pointing us to in this verse. Though we are made in the image of God, we are not God. In Isaiah 40:18, God challenges us: “To whom then will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” The answer is obvious: there is nothing on the earth or in the universe that is like God in the ultimate sense. That is why, when we say, “God is like…” we must always qualify ourselves. When we say, “The Trinity is like…” we immediately find ourselves in trouble!
However, it is the glory of the Christian religion to point frail, time-enslaved, sinful people to the only wise God who is not like us, for this is our only hope. Man has been trying to save himself since the beginning of time, and it has never worked out. The more advanced we become, the more dangerous we become to ourselves. Our wisdom has not saved us; it has put us more at risk.
This is why the incarnation is the greatest miracle that has ever happened or will ever happen. “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” The God who is not like us became like us. He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh to save us from our sin (Rom. 8:3).