What does God look like?
Ian Rees, Bath, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
What a question! Why should the appearance of God be so important? Surely that is a most trivial thing to ask. Is it? When you pray, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Is God, as Michaelangelo famously painted Him, a grand old man up in the sky with an amazingly wrinkled face, long white hair and a flowing white beard? It is true that old age implies dignity, authority and wisdom, but old age often brings weakness, infirmity and timidity and whatever God is, He is neither weak, infirm nor timid.So, whilst the picture of the grand old man might legitimately try to portray the idea of great age it is an incomplete and an unjust picture of God. That is why we are forbidden to make any image of Him because any shape, form or figure we give Him does not do Him justice.
No man has ever seen God
So what does God look like? Our first problem is this – that no-one knows, for ‘no man hath seen God at any time’, John 1. 18. This claim is repeated in 1 John 4. 12. When something is affirmed in the Bible we need to consider and accept it, but when it is said twice, we should sit up and take notice. Paul, when writing about God in 1 Timothy 6. 16, says He is ‘the only wise God . . . whom no man hath seen, nor can see’. The Spirit of God has therefore said at least three times that no man has ever seen God.
Objection 1: Men walked and talked with God in Old Testament times
But surely there were instances in Old Testament times when people did see God? Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden,Gen. 3.Abraham met God in the plain. He saw three men walking past and, hurrying to invite them into his home, prepared them a meal. The two who left to go to Sodom, were probably angels, but the one who stayed behind to talk with Abraham was God, Gen. 18. 33. Jacob wrestled all night with a man, but said ‘I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved’, Gen. 32. 30. Moses spoke with God face to face. Joshua and Gideon saw the Angel of the Lord, which was no ordinary angel because He accepted worship. Didn’t Elijah, on Mount Horeb, see the back parts of God? God was seen by men, was He not?
One important principle of biblical interpretation is that no verse should ever be interpreted in a way that contradicts another verse. If, therefore, the Bible says that no man has seen God at any time that must be so.What is the explanation, then, behind these appearances of God? They are ‘theophanies’. A theophany is an appearance of God in visible form, yet it is an appearance of God in a form other than His own, a form He takes temporarily and for the purpose of His visit. Both Abraham and Jacob wrestled with God, who appeared to be a man. Yet Joshua and Gideon saw an angel, the Angel of the Lord.But God is neither a man nor an angel. A theophany is not God in His real form. The second explanation is that every appearance of God in Old Testament times was actually an appearance of the Son of God. The Son is always the one who comes out from the Father to reveal the Father. Every theophany is actually a ‘Christophany’. Thus it was the Son of God who sat in Abraham’s tent, who wrestled with Jacob and who accepted the worship of Joshua and Gideon.Even in New Testament times it was the Son of God who came out from God, becoming man to be seen by men and to be one of them. John 1. 18 says, ‘the only-begotten of the Father, he hath declared him’.
God is incorporeal
If, then, Jesus is the only man ever to have seen and known the Father, what does He say He looks like? In John 4. 4 our Lord said, ‘God is spirit’. Now a spirit does not have a body. This is further emphasized when our Lord said to His disciples after His resurrection, ‘Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as ye see me have’, Luke 24. 39. That being the case, God, who is spirit,does not have flesh and bones.He is a body-less spirit, He is incorporeal.
God is invisible
If this is true then we would imagine God to be invisible. This is precisely what scripture says of him.We read that Christ is ‘the image of the invisible God’, Col. 1. 15. Moses, ‘endured as seeing Him who is invisible’, Heb. 11. 27. We read of God in 1 Timothy 1. 17 that He is ‘the King eternal, immortal, invisible’. 1 Timothy 6. 16 adds, ‘whom no man hath seen, nor can see’.
Objection 2: But God has body parts
Ah! But if God does not have a body, why does Isaiah 59. 1 say, ‘The Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, neither is his ear heavy that it cannot hear’? Does not this imply that God does have hands and ears? Don’t we read in Psalm 11. 4 ‘His eyes behold, his eyelids try the children of men’? Doesn’t the High Priest, in that magnificent blessing invoked upon the people of God, say, ‘The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace’? And doesn’t the New Testament teaching in 1 Peter 3. 12 imply God has a face, when we read ‘the face of the Lord is against them that do evil’? These verses, surely, indicate to us that God does have a body.
No, they don’t. What God is teaching us in these verses is that, though He is spirit, He is a living spirit, a spirit who sees, hears, knows and understands, a spirit that can be grieved or pleased, a spirit that can do things for us. He is not an inanimate force whose effect can be seen, like the wind rustling in the trees. He is a living being, a person. In order to convey to us the fact that He can see He uses language that we can understand. We need an eye to see, so He talks of His eyes. We need ears to hear, so He says His ear is open to us.We need hands to do things, so He says His hand is not unable to help us. We turn our faces away from people who have disappointed us, so He tells us He does the same. But none of this is intended to imply He has ears, eyes, hands, and a face. These verses tell us what God can do; they do not describe what He is like. They describe His abilities, not His appearance.
Take another set of images that, on first reading, could be thought to describe God’s appearance. ‘He is the rock, his work is perfect’,Deut. 32. 4.‘Our God is a consuming fire’, Heb. 12. 29. ‘The Lord is a strong tower’, Ps. 144. 2.What do these verses imply? Do they mean that on the throne of heaven there is a burning fire? or a rock? or a shield or tower? No. God is described as a rock because He is dependable, trustworthy. He is called a fire because He is holy and will burn away sin. He is a shield because He will protect His people. These images describe God’s character, His attributes, not His appearance.
Objection 3: Man was made in the image of God
Someone will say, Well surely man is made in the image of God. Therefore, because man is body, soul and spirit God must have a body too. The phrase ‘made in the image of God’, however does not describe God’s appearance. Animals have bodies, but they are not made in the image of God. The phrase ‘made in the image of God’ means, first of all, that mankind as a race is able to have a spiritual relationship with God that animals are unable to have. Human beings have a moral and spiritual capacity that animals simply do not have. The word ‘image’ also has the force of ‘representative’. Note what God said in Genesis 1, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea . . . and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the face of the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them and God said . . . replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion’. Being made in the image of God does not mean that God has a body because we have.
Will we ever see God?
Will we ever see God? The phrase ‘whom no man hath seen nor can see’ immediately implies that we will never see God. This may be because our mortal bodies cannot bear to see the essence and glory of God.‘There can no man see me and live’said God to Moses. Even the limited amount of glory the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration saw shining in the face of our Lord caused them to fall to the ground. On the other hand, it may be that our sinful natures have prevented us from seeing God. If this is so,perhaps when we are in heaven and both our mortality and our sinfulness have gone, we shall at last be able to see Him. Yet this does not account for the fact that the angels themselves hide their faces from God’s glory, and they have never sinned, Isaiah 6.
There are a few verses that seem to imply that we shall see God. The first, in 1 John 3. 2 reads, ‘when we see him, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is’. This passage, however, refers to the Son of God, not the Father. It is true that one day we shall see the Lord Jesus, because He has a body, and that body of His will be visible in heaven. Revelation chapter 22, verses 3 and 4, however, speak of a day when, in God’s new heaven and earth, ‘his servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads’. The question is, to whom does this refer? Many would take it to refer to the Lord Jesus, the Lamb. We shall indeed see His face, but not necessarily the Father’s. But even if it does refer to the Father does it literally mean we are all going to be in heaven with God, or Christ’s names, engraved on our faces? Or is the explanation figurative, so that the phrase they shall see His face means there shall no longer be anything coming between us and the Lord. We shall have total unbroken, direct access and communion with Him, and we shall be totally identified with Him.
One passage, however, that clearly describes the Father in heaven is Revelation 4.John, in the Spirit, is shown ‘a throne set in heaven, and one sat on the throne’. We know this is the Father, because in the same throne-room scene described in the next chapter we see Christ standing in the midst of the throne and taking the book from the One sitting upon it.Now, what does the One upon the throne look like? The answer is confusing. John describes it like this, ‘He that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald’. What John appears to describe is the glory surrounding the Father and the throne, but he does not describe the One sitting upon the throne. When he describes the Lord Jesus in Revelation 1 he speaks of someone ‘clothed with a garment down to the foot’. He describes His head, His hair, His feet, His voice, His right hand, His mouth and His face, cf. Rev. 19. But there is nothing of this when he describes the Father, for what John saw of the Father in heaven was the glory that surrounded Him.‘He only dwelleth in light inaccessible, whom no man hath seen nor can see’, says the Scripture.
Will we be disappointed if we don’t see the Father? I don’t think so. To be in the glory ourselves will be thrill enough. But more than that, surely, to see our Lord face to face, to hear His voice, to touch and be touched by Him, will be enough for us all. We shall, at last, see Him as He is.
We have no problem with the idea the Holy Spirit is ‘spirit’, yet we imagine the Father and the Son to be different and to have bodies. In the beginning, the one true God existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each one a spirit being, without body parts. When the world was made, the Son would come down into His creation temporarily, taking upon Himself whatever form He chose for the purpose. But Bethlehem changed all that. At Bethlehem, for the first time the Son of God became flesh. He did not merely take the appearance of flesh as He had done before; He became it. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory’, writes John. God (the Father) sent his own Son ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’, Rom.8. 3.‘He was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself’, Phil. 2. 7-8. Bethlehem was no theophany; Bethlehem was incarnation, God manifest in the flesh.
And that is why the only member of the Godhead you and I will ever see is the Son of God, for He alone has a body. And there is a man in the glory; a man whose resurrected body still bears the marks of the nails in His hands, and the wound of the spear in His side, John 20. 27. And though He may be the only visible member of the Trinity, we will surely not be disappointed to see Him, at last.
GOD IS SPIRIT
AUTHOR PROFILE: IAN REES saw an assembly planted in Francistown, Botswana, having served the Lord there for 13 years. Now based in the UK, he was in fellowship in Manvers Hall, Bath, one of his commending assemblies. He has now moved to establish a new assembly in Tenby, West Wales. He is married and has seven children.