If you think God has never appeared on Earth in human form, think again. Here is a look at what theologians call theophanies.
The one true and living God is omnipresent. That is, He is everywhere all the time, an infinite being with respect to space. Despite this magnificent attribute, God has chosen throughout history to enable people in certain circumstances to see His presence.
For example, in the Old Testament, God appeared in a burning bush to Moses (Ex. 3:2) and in a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night to the children of Israel in the wilderness (13:21). God’s presence also dwelt between the cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant, which was placed first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple (25:22; 2 Sam. 6:2; Ps. 80:1).
Theologians call every such appearance of God in the Old Testament a theophany. The term comes from two Greek words: a noun meaning “God” and a verb meaning “to appear.” Hence, the word theophany refers to a localized appearance of God on Earth.
Some scholars believe every localized appearance of God in the Old Testament is actually a Christophany, a temporary appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity before the incarnation of Jesus Christ.1 Others limit the concept of a Christophany in the Old Testament to an appearance of God in human form only.
These appearances of God in human form differ from the incarnation of Jesus in that they were temporary. In addition, in the incarnation, Christ became flesh (Jn. 1:14). In theophanies of human form, God did not take on flesh; He merely appeared in human form to reveal Himself in specific situations. Several examples of God appearing this way can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Abraham and THE THREE VISITORS
One example is when the Lord appeared to Abraham (Gen. 18:1). Abraham saw three men standing before him (v. 2). As the narrative unfolds, it becomes obvious that one of them is God and two are angels (19:1). All three men demonstrate humanness by eating (18:8).
After extending to the three men the hospitality common to the culture of the day, Abraham received from the Lord the promise that he and Sarah would have a son, despite their old age (vv. 10–11). In addition, Abraham interceded with the Lord on behalf of Sodom, where his nephew Lot lived (vv. 23–32). However, the severity of Sodom’s sin could not be overlooked. God sent the other two men, now referred to as angels (19:1), to destroy the wicked city after rescuing Lot and his family (vv. 1–29).
The entire account given in chapters 18—19 is characterized by theophany.2 God in human form encouraged Abraham about his future and initiated judgment on Sodom.
Jacob and THE MAN
A second clear example of God appearing in human form is recorded in Genesis 32. As Jacob prepared to meet his twin brother, Esau, after a separation of at least 20 years, “a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day” (v. 24). This man displaced Jacob’s hip from its socket merely by touching it (v. 25).
Though God allowed people to perform miracles from time to time, the context reveals here that the Man was God Himself. The Man changes Jacob’s name to Israel, just like God had changed Abram’s name to Abraham earlier (vv. 27–28).
Furthermore, Jacob understood that he had confronted a theophany: “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved’” (v. 30).
Joshua and THE COMMANDER
Another example is when the Commander of the Lord’s army appeared to Joshua (Josh. 5:13–15). Prior to Jericho’s destruction, Joshua “lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand”(v. 13).3
When this Man identified Himself as the Commander of the Lord’s army, Joshua fell down and worshiped him (v. 14)—and was not rebuked for doing so, as in cases when someone knelt before an angel to worship (Rev. 22:8–9).
Instead, this Man ordered Joshua, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy” (Josh. 5:15). That is what God told Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3:5. The account only makes sense if this was a theophany—an appearance of God in human form.
THE MAN in the Furnace
An extremely interesting theophany occurs in Daniel 3:18–25. King Nebuchadnezzar ordered Daniel’s three Hebrew friends thrown into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow down to worship a golden statue of the king (vv. 18–20). However, when he looked into the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar saw the three men walking around unhurt in the fire, accompanied by the form of a fourth man who was “like the Son of God” (v. 25).
The Talmud suggests the term refers to the angel Gabriel.4 It is possible that the king, in his polytheistic understanding, thought in terms of a son of the gods. Even if this were so, he declared the person in the fire to be associated with deity.
Author Stephen Miller stated, “Most likely the fourth man in the fire was the angel of the Lord, God himself in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.”5 In this case, the appearance of God would also be a Christophany.
ANGEL OF THE LORD
The term angel of the Lord also raises questions of theophanies. Sometimes the phrase is used when God’s appearance is not in human form, as in the case of the burning bush. In other passages, the Angel of the Lord clearly appears as a human. In Numbers 22:22–35, a personage with a sword drawn reveals himself to the donkey Balaam, a prophet for hire, was riding and then to Balaam himself.
In these cases, how do we know the Angel of the Lord is not an angel sent to represent the Lord as so often happens in the Bible? Because there are places where the Angel of the Lord is equated with God Himself. For example, it was He who led the Israelites out of Egypt and made a covenant with the Fathers (Jud. 2:1). These actions must be attributed to God Himself. Also, the Angel of the Lord is equated with God in Zechariah 12:8.
God never explains fully why He chose to appear in theophanies in Old Testament days. But His appearances were powerful, personal, and bold exhibitions to help people hear and embrace what He wanted to communicate to them.
The Israelites believed strongly in the omnipresence of the one, true, living, and invisible God. However, they also accepted the fact that sometimes the Almighty chose to localize His presence visibly among them.
- John 1:18 teaches, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” This verse seems to strengthen the view that Old Testament theophanies are also Christophanies. See James A. Borland, Christ in the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1978), 71.
- Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27—50:26, vol. 1B, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 216.
- The image of the drawn sword is used in other contexts in reference to the Angel of the Lord. See David M. Howard, Jr., Joshua, vol. 5, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 155–56.
- Pesachim 118a, b.
- Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, vol. 18, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 123–24.