Has Anybody Seen God? Wrestling with John 1:18
Have you ever received that “beep” and subsequent vibration from your phone and, for a brief moment in time, everything around you is placed in an ensuing pause mode? Your driving is distracted, particularly if your phone happens to be in the pocket. Your mind is pulsating, considering what that text message may reveal. Perhaps it will share an update from a friend concerning tonight’s get-together after school or work. It may be an answer to a question that has been burning in your mind late at night. It may even be confirmation that all is right in your world, because you just landed that dream job for which you have earnestly prayed for the past month. Whatever the message reveals, at that moment, that little electronic device is a powerful tool for communication.
Though the Bible doesn’t grab our attention with beeps, buzzes, or rings, its ability to communicate life’s most basic truths is infinitely greater than any form of technology. If you read the Bible closely, you will find communication truly is its central theme—God’s desire to communicate to His people in a way that draws them into a relationship with Him. In the prologue to John’s account of the gospel, he depicts the beginning of time, the nature of God, and the incredible revelation of Jesus Christ as God manifest in the flesh. Under divine inspiration, John connects the beginning of time (as recorded in Genesis 1:1) with one of the greatest messages to be given to humanity—that the “Word” described in this Old Testament writing becomes “flesh” in John 1:14, and dwells among us. Can you imagine your local news website splashing that on its home page? I can read it now: “Breaking News: Ancient mystery from the Bible revealed tonight at 6:00 PM.”
How can this be? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that no one has seen—or will ever see—God on this side of Heaven? Didn’t someone in the Old Testament have to place a cloth over his head because the “Glory of God” was too great for him to see? (See II Corinthians 3:7-13, which refers to the incident cited in Exodus 34:29-35.) More often in Scripture, what we find are the effects or results of what God has performed. God is revealed or seen through demonstrations of His power and glory—the Red Sea parting, a cloud of smoke leading the children of Israel by night in the wilderness, an audible voice from heaven, and the like. We see God in action rather than a physical being interacting with humanity. After the Garden of Eden, there was a separation between God and humanity, with prophets and priests speaking with God on behalf of God’s people. We could not even directly ask God for forgiveness of sins, as a priest had to perform a special ceremonial sacrifice in order to “roll” our sins forward for a year. It seems hard to believe that God’s people had to wait for a prophet to tell them God’s plan for their lives, especially when we can so freely communicate with Him today. Can you imagine having to always wait to have a prophet come and tell you what God wanted you to do with your life? If God chose to speak directly to someone—as He did with Noah—it usually came with instructions that did not make sense, and were not easy to accept: build a wooden ark to prevent all living creatures from being destroyed, because rain is about to flood the earth. (Never mind that you have never seen rain before!) As foreign as it may seem to us today, there was an insurmountable distance between God and humanity, and any relationship with Him certainly did not possess the same personal aspects as the relationships with God that we experience today.
What about the Old Testament passages that seem to imply that people saw God? Is there some sort of contradiction in Scripture? For example, in Exodus 33:11, it describes that Moses saw the Lord “face to face.” The Hebrew phrase “face to face” is used as a metaphor to describe the personal, intimate encounter of Moses and God. This was not depicting a physical image of God seen by Moses, as it had already been demonstrated that Moses looked away to avoid seeing God’s image. Rather, it was a figurative way to describe his unique encounter with God, where God made His will expressly known to Moses. In the Bible—especially in the Old Testament—God was often described through metaphors, portraying His activity in terms to which humans can relate. Sometimes metaphors were used that even ascribed human qualities to God (the fancy word is anthropomorphisms) to help express a message in a visual way that is easy to understand. For instance, Job 4:9 declares: “By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed.” Obviously, a literal huge nose did not appear in the sky, any more than did Moses see the invisible God. The invisible God was only made visible to humanity when Jesus Christ was born.
Everything changed at the incarnation of Jesus Christ. At that incredible moment in time, the essence of who God is inhabited a human being. The fullness of God was revealed in the man Jesus, thereby redefining our relationship with God. All of the sudden, the power and might of the “I AM” of the Old Testament was wrapped in swaddling clothes, in the baby who slept in Bethlehem’s manger. One of the greatest messages ever placed in print is how God became flesh as our Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus was both God and man; and as such, the previously invisible God could now be seen in Him. Jesus even boldly declared so Himself: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NKJV). We could stop at this point in the story, amazed that God would come near to His creation and make Himself visible to humanity in a way like never before. God could now be experienced in personal relationship like never before. No one—not even Adam and Eve in the Garden—had the opportunity for God’s Spirit to live inside of them. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to Heaven, God’s Holy Spirit came to live inside His followers. The Bible records this amazing progression—from what was once a distant relationship experienced through burning bushes, messengers called angels, prophets, and other means of communication—to a divine manifestation of God on earth, enabling humans to see God for the first time through Jesus Christ. Our access to relationship with God changed again when His Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, because the God who became visible now came even closer, close enough to live in our hearts. The Word had become flesh—a real human baby. He had not ceased to be God. He was no less God at that moment than He was before, but now He was also man. He was not now God minus some elements of His deity, but God plus all that He had made His own by taking humanity to Himself. He who made humans was now learning what it felt like to be part of humanity.
Through the birth of Jesus Christ, our relationship with God drastically changed. What was once far and distant has come near to us. We are now able to experience God living inside of us, because He first made Himself visible through Jesus Christ. John revealed the greatest message that could be found in scripture—that the Creator experienced Creation for Himself. Can we see God today? Even better, my friend, we can experience God today!