Theophany

How and Why Did God Appear to People?

Theophany - Moses and the Burning Bush
God Appears to Moses in the Burning Bush. SuperStock / Getty Images

What Is a Theophany?

A theophany (thee AH' fuh nee) is a physical appearance of God to a human being. Several theophanies are described in the Old Testament, but all had one thing in common. No one saw God's actual face.

Even Moses, the dominant figure of the Old Testament, did not receive that privilege. Although the Bible lists several instances of Jacob and Moses speaking to the Lord "face to face," that must have been a figure of speech for a personal conversation, because God specifically told Moses:

“...you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20, NIV)

To avoid such fatal encounters, God appeared as a man, angel, burning bush, and a pillar of cloud or fire. 

3 Kinds of Theophanies

God did not limit himself to one type of appearance in the Old Testament. The reasons for the different manifestations are not clear, but they fall into three categories.

  • Appearance in nonhuman form. In Exodus, God appeared in a burning bush, as a pillar of cloud by day, and as a pillar of fire by night. God appeared as a "whisper" to Elijah and in visions to other prophets. The Lord appeared to King Solomon in a dream, promising to grant what he asked.
  • Appearance as a man. The most famous revelation of God in the form of a man happened at Peniel ("face of God"), where Jacob wrestled with a man all night. The wrestling was real but also symbolized Jacob's struggles with men and God. Moses spoke with God "face to face" on Mount Horeb, but Jesus revealed that "God is spirit," (John 4:24, NIV), so any human manifestation of God is not his true form.
  • Appearance as an angel. By far the most common revelations of God were as "the angel of the Lord." The term occurs over 60 times in Scriptures. Some Bible commentators think those Old Testament manifestations were actually Chistophanies, or pre-incarnate appearances of Jesus Christ, but that is not spelled out in any of those incidents. The "angel of the Lord" is unique from other angels and is linked to Yahweh himself.

    God Made His Will Clear in a Theophany

    When God showed up in a theophany, he made himself very clear to his listener. As Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac, the angel of the Lord stopped him in the nick of time and commanded him not to harm the boy.

    God appeared in a burning bush and gave Moses detailed instructions on how he would rescue the Israelites from Egypt and bring them into the Promised Land. He even revealed his name to Moses: "I AM WHO I AM." (Exodus 3:14, NIV)

    Theophanies usually marked a turning point in the person's life. God gave orders or told the person what would happen in their future. When the person realized they were talking with God himself, they were often struck with terror, hiding their face or shielding their eyes, as Elijah did when he pulled his cloak over his head. God usually told them, "Do not be afraid."

    Sometimes the theophany provided a rescue. The pillar of cloud moved behind the Israelites when they were at the Red Sea, so the Egyptian army could not attack them. In Isaiah 37, the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. An angel of the Lord rescued Peter from jail in Acts 12, removing his chains and opening the cell door.

    No More Theophanies Needed

    God intervened in his people's lives through those physical appearances, but with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, there is no further need for such temporary theophanies.

    Jesus Christ was not a theophany but something entirely new: a merging of God and man.

    Christ lives today in the glorified body he had when he rose from the dead. After he ascended into heaven, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

    Today, God still acts in the lives of his people, but his plan of salvation was accomplished through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is God's presence on earth now, drawing the unsaved to Christ and helping believers live the Christian life.

    (Sources: Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor; International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, general editor; gotquestions.org; carm.org.)

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    Fairchild, Mary. "Theophany." ThoughtCo, Sep. 12, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-theophany-4064725. Fairchild, Mary. (2016, September 12). Theophany. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-theophany-4064725 Fairchild, Mary. "Theophany." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-theophany-4064725 (accessed January 20, 2018).