Theophanies are particularly intense and spectacular expressions of a broader theological theme, namely that God undertakes to be present with his people. He is present in blessing because the barrier of sin and guilt is destroyed through the sacrifice of Christ.
A theophany is an appearance of God, an intense manifestation of the presence of God that is accompanied by an extraordinary visual display.
A theophany is an appearance of God, a subset of the theme of the presence of God. A theophany is an intense manifestation of the presence of God that is accompanied by an extraordinary visual display. Throughout the Old Testament, God portrayed his presence to his people in various ways (a thunderstorm, enthroned, a warrior, a man), but Jesus Christ serves as the climactic theophany in history: God-become-man. We can understand how God can present himself to his people as a messenger or angel in that Christ came as the messenger of God, although he was fully God. In this trinitarian mystery, we begin to see the ways in which God has made himself present with his people throughout history.
A theophany is an appearance of God. Alternatively, we may say that it is an intense manifestation of the presence of God, accompanied by an extraordinary visual display.
Instances of Theophany
The appearance of God at Mount Sinai, in cloud, lightning, and thunder (Exod. 19), is one of the greatest and most memorable theophanies in the Old Testament. There are other magnificent theophanies. The Lord appears to Isaiah, “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1). The Lord appears to Ezekiel, in the midst of mysterious “living creatures” who are later identified as “cherubim” (Ezek. 1; 10). And he appears as “the Ancient of Days” to Daniel in a dream (Dan. 7:1, 9–10).
The Significance of Theophanies
Theophanies are intense expressions of a broader theme, the theme of God’s presence. God can manifest his presence to destroy his enemies, as in the case of Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16:19, 30–35), or the last judgment on the great white throne (Rev. 20:11–15). But in most cases, God appears principally to express his covenantal blessing, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33). The theophanies are particularly intense and spectacular expressions of a broader theological theme, namely that God undertakes to be present with his people. He is present in blessing because the barrier of sin and guilt is destroyed through the sacrifice of Christ.
In the Old Testament, the presence of God to his people foreshadows the climactic presence of God when Christ comes to earth: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). Isaiah’s prophecy gives Christ the name “Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23; cf. Isa. 7:14).
We might say, then, that Christ is the final theophany, the climactic appearance of God. This climactic element belongs to both his first coming and his second coming. In his first coming, he is already “Immanuel” (Matt. 1:23). At his second coming “every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7). Since Christ is God in the flesh, when people see Christ they see God (John 14:9). The final blessing of the saints is to see God: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4).
But we should note that the incarnation of Christ is different from the Old Testament instances of theophany. The Old Testament theophanies are preliminary. They foreshadow and prefigure the coming of Christ in the flesh. The coming of Christ is their fulfillment, their climax (Matt. 5:17). In addition, Christ’s incarnation is permanent, while the theophanies in the Old Testament were temporary. God saw to it that the Old Testament appearances of God had built into them an indication of their preliminary nature. The Old Testament looks forward to the New, not only by direct predictions but also by symbols that depict beforehand aspects of who Christ is and what he will do to accomplish redemption. Thus, the Old Testament theophanies have a forward-looking and symbolic dimension.