When people can see God.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 August

Or to use the theologians’ term for it, theophanies.

THEOPHANY /θi'ɑ.fə.ni/ n. An experience where God is visible; often hearable and touchable.

Recently a member of a discussion group I’m in was talking about apostles: One of his definitions of apostle is someone who’s seen Jesus. You know, like the Twelve—and Paul of Tarsus, whom he figures was a special case, because Jesus doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore.

There I entirely disagree. Jesus appears to people all the time. Poll the people of your church sometime. Assuming they’re not afraid to admit it (either because your church doesn’t believe in miracles, and in so doing has kinda banned them; or they’re afraid you’ll think them nuts) you might be startled to discover at least one of them has seen Jesus. And no, not a painting of him, nor a Jesus movie: Seen Jesus.

I went into more detail about this in my article on the subject. Jesus can and does appear to people, still. This is the usual form a God-sighting will take place nowadays. God doesn’t have to appear in pillars of cloud and flame, or burning bushes, or thunder on a mountain, or any such thing. The form he took when he became human will do him just fine from now on.

But before he became human, God appeared in all sorts of odd ways to his people. ’Cause sometimes he felt he had to make a personal appearance… so he did.

Remember, God is spirit. Jn 4.24 So most of the time he’s gonna interact with us humans in spiritual ways. In other words, non-physical ways: Won]t see him, won’t hear him, won’t feel him, won’t smell or taste him, won’t detect him through some poorly defined sixth sense. Various Christians claim to sense him, but 99 times out of 100 they’ve confused their emotions (or the really good subwoofers in their church) with “feeling the Spirit.” Or they’ve psyched themselves into an experience.

But in that one time in 100, God chooses to become detectable to our senses. He appears to people. We theologians call this a theophany. It’s one of the five forms of revelation (which’d be prayer, prophecy, bible, conscience, and theophany). When we’re too dense for one of those other forms to do the job, sometimes God resorts to making an appearance.

The bible begins with God-appearances. (’Cause the other forms of revelation weren’t around yet.) God made a habit of hanging around Eden with Adam and Eve. They could even hear him coming. Ge 3.8 True, he didn’t have to physically do this. He could’ve walked with the first humans the same way Jesus “walks” with most of us, answering our prayers and guiding us through life. But he didn’t wanna. Most of the reason he became human is because he still doesn’t wanna. We’re the ones who freak out over God-appearances.

Exodus 20.18-19 KWL
18 All the people saw the sound, the bright light, the trumpet’s call, the smoking mountain—
the people saw, trembled, and stood far away.
19 They told Moses, “You speak with us so we can hear.
Don’t have God speak with us, lest we die.”

As if God had any intention of destroying them. (Yet.) But that’s the problem: God’s grandeur, even in small doses, freaks us out beyond reason and understanding. Mk 9.2-6 The popular belief was, and still is, that if we actually see God as he literally is, our fragile selves can’t take it, Ex 33.20 and we’ll drop stone dead. Dt 18.16, Jn 13.22 And y’know, there’s likely something to that.

So when God appeared to people in the scriptures, he usually appeared as a man Ge 18.1-16 or angel. Jg 13.21-22 The “Angel of the LORD” may only have been a herald who represented God, but consistent with ancient practice, people addressed it as if it was God, and Christians wonder whether this angel wasn’t God in some angelic form. (Other Christians figure it was Jesus before Jesus became human… and since Jesus is God, it’s sorta the same idea.)

Struggling with theophanies.

God’s picked various forms to appear as. Even in the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit looked something like a dove at Jesus’s baptism, or looked like tongues of fire when the apostles received his baptism.

And you notice the result… has kinda been confusion. To this day, when Christians try to depict the Holy Spirit, we tend to draw birds and fire. Or birds of fire. We know he’s not a bird, nor fire… or do we? Because you look at the way certain Christians interact with him, they tend to treat him as if he’s passive and harmless like a bird… or dangerous and scorching like fire. They define him by his images because they don’t really know him.

Same deal with the Old Testament appearances of God. The LORD isn’t fire, a disembodied voice, an angel, a cloud, and wasn’t yet a man. He’s spirit. He’s invisible. He’s huge. Yet people still draw the LORD as if he’s an old guy with a white beard (i.e. as if he’s Odin) for much the same reason people draw the Holy Spirit as a bird: They don’t really know him.

The Pharisees realized theophanies might confuse people, so they tried to downplay God’s Old Testament appearances, and sorta distance him from them. So when they translated the bible into Aramaic (which is what the Israelis of Jesus’s day spoke), the Pharisees did a little something y’might find interesting: Whenever God acted a little too human for Pharisees’ comfort, they translated it so “the word of God” did it. Not so much God. I mean yes God did it, ’cause “the word” is God, but the Pharisees were using “the word” as God’s sorta-kinda intermediary. So instead of God walking round Eden, Adam and Eve “heard the voice of the word of the LORD God walking in the garden.” Ge 3.8, Targum Jonathan Got that?

So if you grew up Pharisee, you’re gonna think of “the word of God” as being with God, and for that matter being God. Which is why it was so groundbreaking when the apostle John stated this “word of God” became human. The person of God who was behind all the theophanies… became the person of God who is himself a theophany. Or christophany, as we theologians put it. The greatest of all God-appearances.

Yep, thanks to the Pharisees, first-century Jews were primed to accept the idea God could become human. After all, Aramaic bibles said “the word of God” regularly interacted with us humans, and occasionally took on human shapes. How huge of a leap is it to say the word became human?

God-appearances today.

Nowadays when Christians describe our God-experiences, most of these encounters are with God’s voice. We heard something. Not just in our spirits; we heard an audible voice. Didn’t see anything, but heard him.

Whether this was a physical form which anybody else could also hear, is debatable. When Jesus first appeared to Paul, one version of Paul’s story said everyone could hear Jesus but not see him; Ac 9.17 another said everyone saw something but couldn’t make out what Jesus said. Ac 22.9 Yeah, that’s a discrepancy in the scriptures, and doesn’t help. All we can say with any certainty is Paul heard Jesus, and it seemed to be a physical voice to him. Subjective visions, when they produce good fruit, count as valid God-appearances; don’t knock ’em.

The next-most-often God-sighting is a Jesus sighting: People saw Jesus. Or saw a being whom they identified as Jesus, who either looked how they’d expect Jesus to look… or totally didn’t, but they knew it was Jesus anyway. The point of these appearances isn’t to give people something they can describe to a police sketch artist anyway: It’s to spur people to follow Jesus better. Again, look for good fruit, not for consistency in how people describe Jesus’s facial features.

And of course there are reports of other odd things which people identify as the Holy Spirit making himself visible and obvious: Smoke, clouds, fire, gold dust, flapping sounds, lights, and so forth. God can appear in whatever way he wants. So he does.

No, these appearances aren’t what we Christians call the second coming. That’s when Jesus invades the world. Meanwhile he’s just rallying his troops, getting us ready for his second coming. He’s not staying away from the earth till then; he’s heavily involved with his church. There’s a better-than-average chance you’ll see him if you keep following him—and keep your eyes open.

Of course, if you assume God never appears to anyone anymore, you’ll likely miss him. But not always. Certain cessationists have been rocked to their core when Jesus personally appears to them, and gets ’em to stop basing their theology on their unbelief. But that’s not how you want your first personal meeting with Jesus to go, so don}t be like that. Theophanies totally happen.