The Old Testament can be disorienting. God reveals himself in clouds of fire, in a whirlwind, even in person. He brings people to mountaintops and speaks to them. He wrestles with Jacob. Isaiah sees him high and lifted up on the throne.
It was so in the beginning when Adam and Eve walked with their Maker in the garden. God appeared to Abram (Gen. 17:1), Jacob saw him face to face (Gen. 32:30), and Moses spoke to him face to face (Exod. 33:11).
Why doesn’t God show himself like that anymore? Why does he seem invisible after revealing himself so visibly and tangibly in the Old Testament? Does this mean following him then was concrete (“leave your land”) but following him now is spiritual and psychological (“read your Bible and pray”)? Indeed, many suppose that if God revealed himself today as he did in the Old Testament, it would be more assuring to Christians and might convince the outside world.
Viewing divine revelation like a symphony helps us with these questions. God reveals himself in diverse melodies at different times, but he is also conducting one masterpiece with a triumphant finale.
John opens his Gospel by saying that “no one has ever seen God” and that Jesus, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18). So which is it? Did Old Testament saints see God, or has no one ever seen God? And does he reveal himself the same way in the New Testament as in the Old?
Behold the Symphony
No matter where you land on the tricky topic of theophanies, all the New Testament authors point to Jesus as God’s ultimate revelation. This might suggest God’s revelation was more physical and earthy in the Old Testament, but this is far from the truth. Jesus is not an immaterial revelation, but the truest form of a material, fleshly revelation.
Although God revealed himself in different forms in the Old Testament, these were all partial sightings. Moses asked to see God, and God revealed his back. His essential being remained unseen. As Calvin commented on John 1:18:
When John says that no one has seen God, it is not to be understood as the outward seeing of the physical eye. He means generally that, since God dwells in inaccessible light, he cannot be known except in Christ, his lively image.
Hebrews 1:1–4 confirms Calvin’s point about God being known and seen in Christ. The passage presents multiple contrasts in verses 1–2. “Long ago” stands in contrast with “in these last days.” There is an implicit distinction with “at many times” and the singular message of the Son. Previously God spoke “to our fathers,” but now he speaks “to us.” Formerly he spoke “by the prophets,” now he speaks “by the Son.”
And this Son is the exact imprint of God’s nature. He is neither shadow nor wraith-like; he is substance—the radiance of divine glory. John and the author of the Hebrews are indicating that the Son is the better revelation. Jesus is the allegro to God’s symphony, the better exposé than the Old Testament saints perceived.
We have the better revelation in Jesus. And the symphony’s crescendo comes in his bestowing the Spirit. The third person of the Trinity is the fulfillment of the wind, the fire, the face-to-face conversations. What was once external is now internal through him. Indeed, the Spirit seals us for the tangible promises of a new heaven and new earth.
How to See God Now
While the opening sonata and the closing allegro are different, there are also similar sounds woven through each. Questions about the revelation of God can sometimes be answered with heightened priority on personal time with an immaterial being. But the New Testament emphasizes meeting God through Christ in the performance of deeds with the body of Christ, the church. We become disciples by engaging in the communal practices of faith—repentance, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, prayer, and singing.
We do these physical acts because we worship a God who is seen in Christ’s face. Just as God was seen in the Old Testament, so too by the Spirit we “see” God in Jesus. When we meet with the people of God, we are gathering with the body of Christ. And as you participate in the Lord’s Supper, you are partaking of him spiritually.
While we may read the Old Testament and wonder why God isn’t showing himself like he once did, we can rejoice since our revelation is superior. Its greatness doesn’t just come in a spiritual sighting, but in a true experience of the new creation, through the Spirit, which is found in Jesus and his church.
- Spirit Inside or Jesus Beside—Which Would You Pick? (Matt Smethurst interviews J. D. Greear)