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.
The theophany at Mount Sinai, the one to Isaiah, and the one to Ezekiel are among the most spectacular instances in the Old Testament. But there are others. Remarkable instances can be compared to less remarkable ones; clear instances can be compared to more mysterious ones.
For example, the descriptions in 2 Samuel 22:8–16 and Psalm 18:7–15 contain language about thunder and lightning, reminding us of Mount Sinai. It is theophanic language. But David uses it poetically to express how God cared for him in his earthly distress (2 Sam. 22:7; Ps. 18:6). Did David literally see a thunderstorm when Saul was pursuing him (2 Sam. 22:1)? Or is this passage rather a poetic expression of how God was present invisibly during David’s distresses? Theophany of a spectacular sort is related to a broader presence of God. God uses spectacular theophanies to establish relations with his people that continue all the way through history. His presence later is to be seen as a continuation of his presence experienced most vividly in theophany.
The Angel of the Lord
Consider, for example, the experiences of Manoah and his wife, recorded in Judges 13. The heart of the story begins when “an angel of the Lord” appears to Manoah’s wife (verse 3). Who is this “angel of the Lord”? The word “angel,” which occurs in most English translations, may incline people to think that it must be what we in our modern situation would call an “angel,” a created spiritual being who serves God. An instance of this kind occurs in Luke 1, where Zechariah encounters the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:11, 19). If Judges 13 belongs in the same category, the angel comes with a commission from God himself. So, indirectly, his presence and his message point to the presence of God. But still, an angel is an angel. He is not God himself.
However, the situation is more complicated. In Judges 13:3 the underlying Hebrew word is mal’ak, which means “messenger.” It designates a person’s function, not his status as God or as a creature. For example, the prophet Haggai is “the messenger of the Lord” (Hag. 1:13, using the same key word in Hebrew). So is the priest of the Lord (Mal. 2:7). Created angels are called “messengers” when they carry the Lord’s message.
So who is the personage who appears to Manoah’s wife in Judges 13? The woman describes him as “a man of God” (2:6). Does she think he is just a human messenger, because he comes in human form? She says that “his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome” (2:6). She senses that he is a supernatural being.
Later, Manoah himself meets this personage. He says, “What is your name?” (2:17). The messenger gives a deeply mysterious answer, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” (2:18). It sounds as though his name is the divine name, beyond understanding. Afterwards, Manoah concludes, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God” (2:22; italics added). Mercifully, Manoah and his wife do not die, but Manoah’s response provides evidence that this particular messenger was a messenger who not only served to represent God but who was God.
Similar cases appear elsewhere. The “angel” or messenger of the Lord in Exodus 23:21 is described by saying, “my name is in him.” The name is the divine name, which is itself divine. So the messenger himself is divine.
Hagar, the Egyptian wife of Abraham, encounters “the angel of the Lord” in Genesis 16:7–14. The text says, “So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing’” (16:13). The narrative as a whole seems to approve of Hagar’s understanding. She did not see merely a created angel, but God himself.
These instances show that the expression “the angel of the Lord” designates a messenger of the Lord but does not in and of itself indicate whether it is a messenger who himself is divine or a messenger who is a created angel—or even a human messenger such as Haggai. Context is the key to deciding.
The Trinity in Divine Messaging
Can there be a messenger who is himself divine? A messenger, almost by definition, is someone who has a message from someone else, a message that he is commissioned to deliver on behalf of the person who sent him. So what do we conclude when the messenger is divine and when the one who sent him is God who is divine?
Here we have an Old Testament anticipation of the fuller New Testament teaching about the doctrine of the Trinity. In the New Testament, we see that the one true God is also three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Son is sent by the Father into the world. The Son delivers the words that the Father gives him: “What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me” (John 12:50; cf. 12:49). The Father is the origin and sender of the message; the Son is the messenger who bears the message.
The Father dwells in the Son, so that the words of the Son are also the words of the Father. And of course they are the words of the Spirit who dwells in the Son. All of this is highly mysterious, because the Trinity is mysterious.
The Trinity in Theophanies
Only with the doctrine of the Trinity do we see how Manoah and Hagar could have met God. God is the message sender and God is the message bearer, both in one appearance. He is the commissioner, and he is the messenger. The Father speaks to them through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. Old Testament theophanies are always at a deep level trinitarian theophanies. God appears in a manner fully consistent with who he is. He is one God in three persons.
Kinds of Theophanies
To some extent, we can classify theophanies into different kinds. There are thunderstorm theophanies, such as Mount Sinai. There are court theophanies, in which God appears on his throne in the midst of angelic servants (Dan. 7:9–10). There are man theophanies, where God appears in human form (for example, to Manoah and his wife). There are warrior theophanies, where God is described as resembling a human warrior (Exod. 15:3; Isa. 49:17). There are chariot theophanies, where God is described as riding on a chariot (Ps. 18:10; sometimes with mention of wheels, Ezek. 1:15–21). There are glory and cloud theophanies, when God appears in a bright “glory” cloud, or sometimes in a dark cloud. God reflects his glory in the created world, so that we can see analogy between creation and theophany (Ps. 104:1–4).
Jesus Christ, as the climactic “theophany,” is the fulfillment of all the symbolic communications in theophanic forms.
- Andrew S. Malone, Knowing Jesus in the Old Testament?: A Fresh Look at Christophanies
- Ernst W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament
- Glenn R. Kreider, God with Us: Exploring God’s Personal Interactions with His People throughout the Bible
- J. Ryan Lister, The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives
- Vern S. Poythress, Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing