A Visible God

In the recent Theophany post, we looked at ways God manifested himself to the Israelites over the centuries, consummating with His penultimate expression through Jesus Christ.

Fifty years ago this summer God drew me into youth ministry through Young Life, a non-denominational outreach to teenagers. I was serving teenagers in my hometown, working full-time, and pursuing an engineering degree taking classes a couple nights a week. In the midst of it all, I tried to read scripture with some consistency and with some success. In the 70s, we didn’t have the availability of scripture translations and paraphrases as we do today, but we had a few – King James, Revised Standard, New American Standard, The Living Bible, The Good News Bible, and a favorite of Young Life staff, the J.B. Phillips New Testament.

Early into my Young Life experience, at a volunteer leader training, we were pointed to Colossians 1:15 – Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God (Phillips). The passage, it was explained, was a cornerstone to Young Life talks – we wanted kids to know the real God who made himself visible through Jesus. Jesus revealed God’s character, compassion, and heart for people. In preparing Young Life talks, I diligently worked at helping kids see this Jesus, the visible expression of the God they could not see. A few months into the beginning of my Young Life tenure as a volunteer leader, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t know God or Jesus, save a few stories I learned in Sunday School*…..

In the midst of a fairly busy schedule, I embarked on a year-long quest to know God. It didn’t start as a year-long quest. It started as a one-time reading of the Gospels in my brand new J.B. Phillips New Testament, underlining and highlighting with a red colored pencil as I progressed. After an initial read, I decided to read them again – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – marking the pages with a different color. I was amazed to discover how much I didn’t observe in the first go-around. So I read them again. I soon realized that my eyes were drawn to passages that were already highlighted. So I bought a new bible with a different translation and repeated the process, highlighting new discoveries about Jesus (and thus about God).

Seven translations and a year later I felt I was ready to adequately venture into other parts of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. As I look back 50 years, I have to believe that year was one of the most transformative experiences of my faith journey. It’s what likely saved me from the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It set me up to know Jesus (not just about Jesus). It set me up to give decent Young Life talks. It set me up to be a better husband and father. It set me up to learn to read Scripture exegetically. IT SET ME UP FOR LIFE!

I suspect few people read the Gospels with regularity

I am amazed how few people have actually read straight through the Gospels even one time, which is why I give everyone I mentor the exact same assignment – read through the Gospels.** When done, I usually have them repeat the process. Invariably, I get the same response – it was a transformative experience (a common ‘practical theology’ theme, you’ll notice).  If you happen to be one that has never done a read-through of the Gospels, then you know what I would suggest. I sincerely hope you would heed the suggestion.

My heart aches when I realize how few Christians spend time in the Gospels, and thus with Jesus. How else will we ever know Him?

* A couple of years ago I had the privilege of joining a group of people to hear George Barna give a researcher’s perspective on what is needed to develop our young people in today’s culture. He said research shows that most church children and youth teachings tend to focus only on about 20 basic Bible stories. (This 2-minute video, Kindergarten Faith, describes the residual effects of Barna’s findings.)

** Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help the listener experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. The pace: ~three chapters a day. Today, June 1, starts a new set of readings. Check it out.


I have always been fascinated by thunderstorms and their lighting displays. I remember laying in bed as a kid estimating how far away the actual lighting bolt might have been. I was always intrigued when a very bright flash turned out to be 5-6 miles away. It gave me a sense of the magnitude and power of a lighting bolt – typically 300 million volts! (Bear in mind that the largest cross-country transmission lines you may see are only 345,000 – 500,000 volts.)

When our two oldest children were around two and four years old, we lived in Oklahoma for a couple of years. Oklahoma knows how to do thunderstorms! Our upper-midwest lighting shows pale in comparison. Our house had a vaulted living room with about 15 feet of window on the vaulted end. I would sit with my kids watching the amazing lightning displays together. We were in awe of the splendor.

Once I was flying from MSP to Houston, sitting next to a young astronaut that had recently returned from her maiden space shuttle voyage as the deployment officer. I was fascinated as she recounted her experience. She equated it to going to summer camp. Her “bed” was adjacent to a window which she said she stared out of when she should have been sleeping. She wanted to take in the splendor of the Earth God had created.

As we neared Houston, we found ourselves surrounded by thunderstorms as the pilots navigated a path of least resistance. We both watched in awe at the height of the thunderheads and the continuous flashes within the clouds. The young astronaut told me about dazzling thunderstorms she had seen from space. Unbeknownst to her (and me!), lighting bolts extend out of the thunderheads upwards toward space in a most glorious display. I can only imagine!

Hebrew thought and literature are laced with theophany language and examples. Though unseen, the one true God chose to manifest himself to his people in a variety of ways. Theophanies were a visible expression of an invisible God, denoting his presence with His people.

Theophany. Though not an everyday word for us, it begins to touch on the magnitude of a thunderstorm. By definition, a theophany is a visible manifestation of a god to humanity. Etymologically, theophany stems from ancient Greek theophaneia, meaning “appearance of a deity” and was part of Greek mythology. Homer’s Illiad was one of the oldest writings to describe theophaneia. My limited knowledge of Greek mythology recalls Zeus as the sender of thunder and lightning.

Examples of theophanies we might be aware of are related to Moses, beginning with the familiar burning bush event (Exodus 3), which captured Moses’ attention given that the shrub was not consumed. From the bush, God revealed his name (Yahweh) and then unveiled Moses’ mission to be instrumental in delivering His people out of captivity in Egypt.

The entire Exodus story is laced with theophanies. After the multitude escaped Egypt under Moses’ leadership, a visible expression of God appeared in the form of a “pillar of cloud by day” and a “pillar of fire by night” (Exodus 13:21-22). But the BIG theophany took place a couple months later at Mount Sinai when God met with His people…

There was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently (Exodus 19:16-18).

A Theophany!

Another theological term describing what the Hebrews experienced that day was the witness of God’s Shekinah Glory. The word shekinah is a Hebrew name meaning “dwelling” or “one who dwells.” Shekinah Glory then means “He caused to dwell,” referring to the divine presence of God. Not found in scripture, the etymology of shekinah is from the Hebrew word shākan, which means“to reside or permanently stay.”

The rabbis used the term Shekinah to remind the people of Yahweh’s presence with them, a key distinguisher for the Hebrews. Moses once asked God who was going to help him lead these people (a good question since they tended to be a bit unruly!). God basically said, “Me” – “My Presence will go with you…” to which Moses basically said, “Whew” and followed up with, “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:12-16).

A more preponderant theophany took place upon the completion of Solomon’s temple almost 500 years later. The theophany occurred after a lengthy prayer of dedication by Solomon (2 Chronicles 6:12-42*). God’s Shekinah Glory filled the Temple…

Fire came down from heaven… and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).

God took up residence in the Temple, among his people. He dwelled with them. Shekinah. The people were very aware of his presence, which distinguished them from all the other people on the face of the earth.

Fast forward about ten centuries. The Apostle John was composing his Gospel, the good news of Jesus, the sign of God’s continued presence among the people. One would assume John was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. I would assume he was familiar with Solomon’s prayer…

But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (2 Chronicles 6:18)

…when he wrote the introduction to his Gospel: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Jesus, the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). God built a new Temple and took up residence with his Shekinah Glory.

A Theophany of sorts!

* I encourage you to take the time to read Solomon’s Prayer of Dedication.