By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
Before Jesus steps onto the scene in the New Testament, God reveals himself in physical form in a number of ways in the Old Testament. These appearances, known as theophanies, are visible appearances or manifestations of God that are tangible to the human senses.
This article will endeavor to show a handful of the times God manifested himself in a physical, tangible sense (or at least, tangible in human terms) and then will discuss what Christians can learn from these appearances.
What is a theophany?
It basically means an appearance of God. Some will use the term Christophany to refer to an appearance of Christ prior to his arrival in the Gospels. Theophanies don’t always mean God appears in the form of a man. As you will see later in the article, He can sometimes manifest Himself in fire or a tempest.
A theophany also tends to serve a purpose. For instance, when God appears to Abraham, it’s to prophesy about a coming child in their family and to warn him about Sodom and Gomorrah. Theophanies can often have elements of prophecy or revelation, serve as a guide (the pillar of cloud and fire), or a turning point (Jacob’s wrestling), or some combination thereof.
Appearing to Abraham (Genesis 18)
One of the three men visit Abraham and tell him that his wife Sarah will have a child within a year’s time, a proclamation that makes Sarah laugh.
Before leaving, God tells Abraham he intends to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah.
Through a series of back and forth, Abraham tries to whittle the number of righteous men required to be within the walls of the evil city for the Lord to let them live.
Wrestling Jacob (Genesis 32)
Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, had been running his whole life. He fled from his brother Esau, when he had stolen his birthright and blessing. He ran from Laban. Now faced with the prospect of meeting his brother again, Jacob was once again a flight risk.
God (in the form of a man) wrestles with Jacob, literally, the night before Jacob goes to see Esau. God puts his hip out of socket. Now with a limp, he goes to meet his brother.
The Burning Bush (Exodus 3)
Moses was an Israelite, raised in Egypt during a time of great oppression, who turned shepherd in the wilderness. He didn’t expect to go back to Egypt, but then he caught sight of a bush burning. The fire was not consuming the branches, and Moses heard God’s voice through it. In this theophany, God told Moses that he would return to Egypt to ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
Pillar of Cloud and Fire (Exodus 13:20-22)
When Moses and the Israelites leave Egypt, God leads them in the right direction in the form of a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire via night. The fire helped during the dark hours of the evening, and both manifestations always went before the Israelites.
Tempest or Tornado (Job 38:1)
After Job had debated with his friends about the relationship of righteousness, punishment, sin, and God, he challenges what God had done to him. He had lost his family, home, health, and just about everything.
God appears in a whirlwind (possibly a tornado) and bombards Job with questions, essentially making clear the point that man cannot comprehend the ways of God.
Job acknowledges his lack of knowledge in such matters and humbly listens to what God has to say. God blesses Job with twice as much as he had lost before (Job 42:10).
What do theophanies teach Christians?
As Christians, we can sometimes tend to skip over the Old Testament, thinking some of the passages are irrelevant or meant for a different audience, considering we have the ultimate theophany of Jesus appearing in the Gospels.
But we can still learn a number of things from reading about these appearances of God in the Old Testament.
First, we learn God shows up in more than one way.
We can often place God in a box, thinking He’ll act one way or another, but as Job learned through seeing God appear in a whirlwind, we can never quite figure out the mind of God.
He may appear one way to one believer and in another way to another. We’ve heard about those in the Middle East seeing Jesus in dreams, and others encounter Jesus through a powerful sermon or through the words of Scripture.
We can even expect God to choose to appear as a still, small whisper.
Second, we learn God made appearances long before Jesus came onto the scene.
This may seem like a given, but we have to keep in mind certain worldviews like deism have made God out to be distant and uncaring about the world.
Theophanies in the Old Testament disprove this. God literally steps onto the scene. He’s with Job during his most dire moments, helping lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and encourages Abraham and his wife when they think their childbearing years are over.
Third, theophanies reveal aspects of God to us.
We can see elements of God through these appearances. In the fiery pillar and tempest, we see God’s power. When He appears a man to Abraham, He reveals He has elements of His character that are similar to mankind, meaning He made us in His image. When He wrestles with Jacob, He shows His willingness to wrestle with us, especially in the moments we feel most like running away.
Theophanies give us an enduring glimpse of the truth that God is always with you, wherever you are.
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