We think of God as “big”, but usually in a kind of vague, generalized way. It’s not really possible for our human minds to wrap around just how big He is, and in what contexts. The terms “sovereign” or “sovereignty” are an attempt to come close. They mean “having supreme power or authority” 1. Synonyms include “dominion”, “kingdom”, “rule”, “reign”, “realm”, and “empire”. They speak to both God’s right and also His power to be in complete control.
OK, then, sovereign over what? What is it that God completely controls? The short answer is…everything. The book of Revelation says He is “the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty….the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13). But for a longer answer, I’ll divide into four areas: the physical world, the spiritual world, nations and history, and individual lives.
The Physical World
Genesis chapters 1 and 2 tell the story of God’s creation of the world. Nothing existed until He chose for it to; everything that continues to exist does so because He still chooses. The Apostle John says it like this: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” (John 1:3). Psalm 104 describes God’s sovereignty over His creation in beautiful poetic language. And the Apostle Paul, speaking of Jesus as God, says:
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.“Colossians 1:16-17
To get an idea of the control that God exercises over the cosmos, consider the complex interaction of physical laws that make a living universe possible. If forces like gravity, electromagnetic, and nuclear attraction/repulsion were even slightly different, everything from atoms to galaxies would either collapse in on themselves or fly apart explosively. Specific to Earth, if it were a different distance from the Sun or its neighboring planets, if the Moon were a different size or distance, if the solar system were in a different part of the Milky Way…then life would be impossible 2.
This short article lists 22 major factors that must be just right in order for us to be having this conversation. The book “The Privileged Planet” discusses not just how special it is that Earth supports our life; it’s also special that we are in a position to learn about the universe (with an atmosphere sufficient for life but transparent enough to see into space, for instance).
(If it’s not God holding all these complex variables together at just the right values, then what is? Blind chance? I don’t have enough faith for that! 3)
The Spiritual World
These days, there is a tendency to automatically dismiss any hint of the supernatural. Only what we can detect with our senses and science can verify experimentally is considered to be “real”. On the other hand, there are worldviews that say everything is supernatural, that the material world we think we see is an illusion because we aren’t closely enough in sync with the universe to know better. Frankly, both of those views seem pretty silly to me. If nothing is real, then we might as well give up on everything; what’s the point? If only the physical is real, then we can forget about love, joy, beauty, fun, imagination…most of the things that make life worthwhile. The Bible teaches the reality of both physical and spiritual, and God’s sovereignty over both.
In the spiritual realm, God has free reign. John’s gospel compares His Spirit to the wind: “[it] blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8). Jesus said that He could instantly have twelve legions of angels at His disposal 4 (Matthew 26:53). Ezekiel chapter 1 and Isaiah 6:1-6 give a couple of descriptions of God in His glory with supernatural attendants. I have written elsewhere about Satan and the angels that rebelled along with him. God is definitely Sovereign over them also!
Fitting into this section also is that God is Sovereign over morality. His world, His rules. He sets the standard for what is right and what is wrong. Happily for us, His standards are rooted in His own good character, so obeying them is also what gives us the best life, liberty and happiness.
Nations and History
Human history sometimes seems to be a mess, lurching from war to catastrophe to oppression and back. There are occasional signs of hope as a great empire raises up. But then it crashes back down again, usually within 500 years or less (and those years are often marked by war, catastrophe, and oppression!). But the Bible teaches that God sets the boundaries for each of those nations (Acts 17:26), and imposes limits on the amount of evil allowed.
Early in the Bible, God told Abraham of some coming events for his descendants:
Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13-16)
Notice: They will be enslaved (by Egypt, which started at least four generations after Abraham); their captors will be judged (remember the Red Sea in Exodus 14?); and the “iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete“. The Amorites were among the neighboring peoples who worshipped idols (by way of temple prostitutes and child sacrifice). God gave them at least another 500 years after this prophecy before He had the Israelites conquer them while returning to their “Promised Land” in Canaan.
Daniel chapter 2 tells of a king’s dream and Daniel’s God-given interpretation that it represented that kingdom and several following ones. Sure enough, the Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman empires did indeed succeed the Babylonians who were then at the height of their power. I’ve written more on this topic of God’s hand in history in a separate article. (Daniel chapters 4 and 5 also describe God’s dealings with Babylonian kings and kingdoms.)
The Bible emphatically teaches that God knows each individual, and has a specific plan for their life. This holds true even as each person has free will to make their own choices. God is aware of those choices ahead of time, and incorporates them into His plan. This is one of the great mysteries of faith: We can’t understand how He does it 5, but the Bible is full of examples of Him doing so. Here are a few of them:
- Ahab had been prophesied to die in battle, where the other side was gunning for him. So he went in disguise and put someone else in his kingly robes. An enemy soldier shooting at random caught him just at the right opening in his armor. (1 Kings 22:29-40)
- Esther was chosen as queen at a time when Jews were despised. She was able to use her position to save her people from extermination. As her uncle Mordecai told her “who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) Apparently, that was the case!
- Cyrus, the Persian king who defeated Babylon in 539 B.C., was foretold by God through the prophet Isaiah who died in 680 B.C., over 100 years earlier. Cyrus made his choice to conquer; God used that choice to free His people to return from Babylon to their homeland in Judea. (Isaiah 44:28-45:1)
- Jeremiah was destined to be a prophet from before he was born: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)
One metaphor that the Bible uses for God’s sovereignty is that of a potter throwing a pot on the wheel. To start with, there is just a lump of clay sitting there. It’s useless as it is, but the potter has the option of making it into anything he wants. If he wants a priceless sculpture, he can make one. If he wants an ashtray, he can make that. The clay has no say in the process. Its value is in whether or not the finished product suits the potter’s purpose.
…And His Cracked Pot…
God is the Potter, and the entire cosmos and everything in it is His product, completely under His control (Isaiah 45:9, Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:1-10, Romans 9:19-24). To those of us (as in “all humans”) who want to be autonomous, that is threatening at first. Of course, that desire for autonomy from God is also pretty much the definition of sin!
…Which He Has Redeemed!
- Understanding that He is Sovereign God and I am not is the beginning of the road to becoming a Christian.
- Realizing that He is a very good Potter who can be trusted with His creation comes next.
- Learning that He loves my little cracked pot enough to become a pot Himself so He can be broken for me is incredible 6.
- Acknowledging my cracks (sin) and accepting His love is the final step to becoming a Christian pot who loves its Potter! 7
Footnotes and Scripture References
- Not just human life, any life: Earth would have no water, or be bombarded by radiation, or have constant “climate change” on the order of hundreds of degrees.
- With apologies to Norman Geisler
- at 6000 each, that’s 72,000 angels!
- Part of the mystery can be resolved by remembering that God is Sovereign even over time. He is outside of our time/space “bubble” and can see all of it at once, from any angle He chooses.
- See “Power in the Blood” and “Lamb of God” for more on that expression of love and sacrifice.
- God uses the mended cracks — all of my flaws and weaknesses — to even better demonstrate His sovereignty as He brings beauty from imperfection. Japanese “kintsugi” art does something similar. I wonder if God smiles at that? :)