10 Things You Should Know About Theophanies

September 19, 2018

by Vern Poythress

1. The word theophany is a combination of two Greek words, meaning God and appearance.

A theophany is an appearance of God. More precisely, it is a visible display to human beings that expresses the presence and character of God. Examples include the thunderous display at the top of Mount Sinai (Ex. 19); the burning bush (Ex. 3); appearances to Abraham (Gen. 15:1; 17:1; 18:1), Isaac (Gen. 26:2), and Jacob (Gen. 28:13); the cloud of fire in the wilderness (Ex. 14:19; 40:34; Num. 9:15–23); Micaiah’s vision (1 Kings 22:19–22); Isaiah’s vision (Isa. 6); Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 1); and John’s vision of God on his throne (Rev. 4–5).

2. Theophanies reveal God using created media.

God shows who he is using visual displays like fire, clouds, and sometimes a human shape (Ezek. 1:26–27). The display may be accompanied by sounds (thunder, the voice of God, etc.) and other effects (Ex. 19:18).

3. God the Creator in his divine nature is distinct from the created media that he uses in theophany.

At the same time, he shows himself in the created media and is present in and through them. Since God is distinct from the world, he is not captured by the world, and is not directly visible to us without created media. At the same time, he makes himself genuinely known when he appears. His appearance reflects who he is.

4. Theophanies in the Old Testament anticipate and foreshadow the permanent coming of God into creation in the incarnation of the Son.

In the incarnation, the Son of God takes to himself a human nature, while remaining the divine Son. The Son is the permanent appearance of God among us. As Jesus says to Philip:

Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? (John 14:9)

The incarnation is a unique event in the whole history of the world. But it is foreshadowed by the earlier temporary appearances of God. All the earlier appearances show beforehand something about the work that God will accomplish when Christ appears in the flesh.

5. Theophanies are of different kinds.

Examples include a thunderstorm, fire, a cloud, glory, a courtroom, a human figure, a warrior, and a chariot. Each of these highlight aspects of God’s character and his dealings with us. Each foreshadows the coming of Christ. Each kind is mysteriously related to the other kinds.

6. God does things through theophanies.

Typically, theophanies function as founding events that establish continuing relations between God and his people.

7. Obvious cases of theophanies fade off into cases that are not so obvious.

In a broad sense, every encounter between God and man shows affinities to theophanies. God’s presence with us is analogous to theophany. The general revelation of God through creation and providence displays God’s character (Rom. 1:18–23), and in this respect is theophany-like (Ps. 104:1–3).

8. The character of theophany reflects the Trinitarian nature of God.

God the Father shows himself through the Word in the power and glory of the Holy Spirit.

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Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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