(I posted this a little while ago on another website but I wanted to re-post it here.)
“A theophany is a visible manifestation of God to human beings… Jesus is a theophany… but much more. Only in the case of Jesus did God become flesh permanently, being conceived in the body of a woman, experiencing a human infancy and growth, and increasing in wisdom and stature, subject to sufferings of this life and to death itself.” (Frame, Doctrine of God, 585-86)
How should we understand these manifestations of God? How should they affect our doctrine and practice?
The Bible begins with a God who appears. He formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils (Gen 2:7). He planted a garden eastward in Eden, and he placed Adam in that garden (Gen 2:8). He brought all kinds of animals before Adam (Gen 2:19). He formed Eve from the side of Adam, and he brought Eve to Adam (Gen 2:22). He walked in the garden in the cool of the evening (Gen 3:8). He called to Adam, and cursed Adam (3:9, 19). He made garments of skin for Adam and Eve (3:21). Then he drove them out of the garden of Eden (3:24).
In between these two events, God is largely hidden. This is a consequence of sin. Sin separates us from a holy God (Isa 6:5; 59:2).
God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:20; 34:5-7). He also appeared to Moses, Aaron, his sons, and the seventy elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-11). God appeared to Moses and Joshua at the entrance of the tent of meeting (Deut 31:14-15).
At other times, God appeared to the patriarchs and prophets in signs, visions and dreams. Jacob saw the Lord on his way to Haran (Gen 28:11-22). Moses saw the burning bush (Exod 3:4). Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and exalted (Isa 6:1-5). Ezekiah saw the glory of the Lord in the midst of a storm (Ezek 1:1-28; 10:1-22).
As we go through the Old Testament, we see that God appeared at critical moments in Israel’s history: to call a man and his wife out of idolatry, to call a nation out of Egypt, to make a covenant with them, to warn them about exile, and to give them hope in exile. Yet each of these appearances were fleeting.
Then, gloriously, God appeared in a new way.
In the person of his Son, he took on a human nature—not only appearing like us but becoming one of us, while remaining fully God (John 1:14; 14:9).
All previous appearances of God were mediated through the Son (John 1:18). But the incarnation is something unique and new. For a little while, the Son is hidden from us. He has ascended into heaven but he will return. And when we see him, we will be made like him (1 John 3:2). This is something to rejoice in and something to build our life upon.
We should understand God’s invisibility in the light of his appearances. Although he is not ordinarily seen by us, he is able to make his presence known. He does this through the mediation of his Son.
Frame, John M. Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg, N. J.: P & R, 2002.