What We Believe

"Show Us the Father"

Paul S. MacDonald

Did you hear about the little boy in Sunday school who was scribbling on his take-home paper? The teacher looked at his paper and asked what he was drawing a picture of.

"God," he said.

"Why Johnny," she said, "you can't do that—because nobody knows what God looks like."

"They will when I'm finished," he assured her.

A Physical Manifestation of God

That story presents concretely, almost blatantly, the very human tendency for us to conjure up in our minds some image, some picture, some idea of who God is. As adults we are probably more subtle and refined in our conceptions, but we are no less presumptuous than the boy in Sunday school. Even when we know that the second commandment forbids the making of any image of God, including mental images, it is still hard for us not to imagine God as a larger version of ourselves.

It was from my seminary roommate that I first heard the quip, "In the beginning, God created man in his own image, and man has been returning the favor ever since." So the Greeks and Romans created a pantheon of gods who were only exaggerated humans—more mighty and powerful, but also frequently more lustful and violent. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in "The Indian upon God," captures this irony of the creature fashioning the Creator in its own image. The roebuck fancies God as the enormous buck whose stamping feet produce the thunder; the peacock visualizes God as a grand peafowl who fans out his tail to display the Milky Way.

Since the only other persons we have much acquaintance with are other human beings, it is a challenging task for us to conceive of persons who are not human. Yet we know that the Bible teaches that God, although not a human being, is a person. He is not a person like us, but we are persons like him, for he is the original and we are the copies. What we have to realize, even if we struggle with the idea, is that physical being is not an essential element of personhood. Therefore, the fact that we cannot see God as a physical being should not weaken our assurance that he is a real person.

Now read John 14:8—"Philip said, 'Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.' "

What did he mean by that? Was Philip so dense that he did not realize that God was spirit—that God was invisible? Didn't he accept the first-century Jewish article of faith that "No man has seen God at any time"? What was Philip getting at?

Really, though—when you think about it—is his question so strange? Wouldn't you like to see a physical manifestation of God to settle the nagging doubts in your mind? Is there really a God who is there? Or is the concept of God merely a figment of man's fertile imagination? Let's get this uncertain issue settled once and for all. If God is there, let him prove it—beyond the shadow of a doubt. Show us the Father.

I'm not sure that Philip was saying anything heretical here. I don't think he was asking for the kind of evidence that a twentieth-century skeptic would demand. I think he raised his question as a faithful Jew who was acquainted with the Old Testament. He was asking for an appearance of God in the life and experience of human beings—a theophanysuch as Moses and the elders shared on Mount Sinai, or as Moses experienced again on the mountain when God passed by and showed him his glory (Ex. 33:18-23), or as Isaiah experienced in the temple when he saw the Lord high and exalted (Isa. 6:1).

The Father and the Son

Now, what Philip did not know was that he was basking in the presence of something far more wonderful than those brief Old Testament theophanies. He was living and moving in the presence of Jesus, the Son of God. He had something much better than a theophany—but he didn't know it! So he said to Jesus, "Show us the Father."

Jesus' answer (John 14:9-11) presents some rather staggering ideas. First of all, anyone who has seen Christ has seen the Father. There is such a oneness between Jesus and the Father that he can put it this way: "I am in the Father and the Father is in me." This is part of the mystery of the Trinity. The members of the Trinity are separate persons, even though they constitute only one God. Let's note that Jesus is not saying in verse 10 that the Father and the Son are the same—such as the unitarian ("Jesus Only") Pentecostals would hold. The Father and the Son are not the same person under different names that all boil down in the final analysis to Jesus only. The Father and the Son are separate persons, but as members of the one triune God (with the Spirit, of course), they are so closely united that anyone who has seen Christ has seen the Father.

Another thing to notice is that the words spoken by Jesus are not just his own. Rather, the Father, living in the Son, is doing his work. The Bible does not say that the Father is speaking his words, but that he is doing his work. That is, the work of God in the redemption of men is accomplished through the words of the Son. When the Father works, the Son speaks. The work of God is the revelation of himself to mankind. That revelation is epitomized in the words of the Son. Accordingly, in the first chapter of John, the Son is called the Word.

Turn to John 1:1-2. The passage reads, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." Assuming that the "Word" is the Son, the Christ, it is evident that the Son and the Father are two persons—"The Word was with God."

It is also evident that both of those persons are really and truly God. To the same extent that the Father is God, the Word is also God. John does not use an adjective, such as divine or godlike, but a noun. Jesus, the Word, is God—a person separate from the Father, but the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

The verb was brings out the eternal existence of the Word. It does not have the same meaning as became or had been. There never was a time when the Word was not. John is affirming here that the Word existed before the Creation. The Word was not created, but eternal. Before the beginning of time, before the creation of anything visible or tangible, there was always God. There was just one God, but he existed in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit—eternally.

God in Human Flesh

Now move to John 1:14 and read how the eternal God—the uncreated, the infinite—entered into human life, into the cosmic experience of this world. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."

How could the incarnation of Christ be any more powerfully stated? The Word became flesh. Since the Latin words in carne mean "in/into (the) flesh," this is literally the incarnation of Christ. Look at the verb. Became is in a tense that means that the action took place in the past, at a certain point in time. There is no idea here of continuance or repetition. It happened once and that's it. At a certain point in history, the Word became flesh—once for all.

Flesh is a blunt word. It might be less offensive to say that "the Word became man" or "the Word took a human body," but by the time John was writing his gospel, after the other three gospels had been written, heretical views were arising in the church. Gnosticism was teaching that the physical was less holy than the spiritual. It was inferior, tainted, evil. John speaks bluntly here to emphasize that Jesus did not consider it beneath him to become flesh. Another threat was Docetism, which taught that Jesus was the Son of God all right, but only appeared to be human. Since, in that system of thought, God could not defile himself by contact with humanity, the whole life of Jesus on earth was said to be only a kind of apparition. So as not to leave room for any heretical ideas, John chooses a strong expression that allowed for no such interpretations. "The Word became flesh."

Then John adds that the Word "made his dwelling among us." Since that verb derives from the noun for "tent" or "tabernacle," we could say that the Word tented among us. When John immediately adds, "We have seen his glory," he apparently wants us to think of the glory of the Lord displayed in the days of Moses.

Seeing God's Glory

In Exodus 33 we read of the tent of meeting—not the tabernacle, but an ordinary tent outside the camp where Moses would meet with the Lord. Notice in verse 9 that whenever Moses entered this tent of meeting, the glorious pillar of the Lord's presence would descend and stand at the entrance to the tent.

In the closing chapter of Exodus, all the elements of the tabernacle have been constructed and all the preparations for it have been completed. Then, when everything is arranged and the tabernacle is ready for use, we read, "Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Ex. 40:35).

The term shekinah, meaning "presence," refers to the glory of God that filled the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle—the light that illuminated that windowless room and testified to the presence of the Lord over the mercy seat. It is that glory, and the glory of the fiery-cloudy pillar, and the glory of the Lord that appeared like lightning over the top of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 and 24, that John is alluding to when he says that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14 nkjv).

Just as Moses witnessed the glory of the Lord's presence in the tent of meeting and the tabernacle, John and the disciples witnessed the glory of the Lord in the person of the Word, Jesus, the Son of God. Think of the display of glory in the Transfiguration. Although John does not record the event, the other evangelists note that John was present on the occasion when, as Jesus was praying on a mountain, "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning" (Luke 9:29).

If you think the Transfiguration was a brief exception to the way Jesus normally looked, you have it backwards. That dazzling appearance, as bright as the sun, was his normal appearance. What fooled the disciples was that when Jesus came to earth, he put a veil of humanity over his brilliant glory—just as Moses had to veil the reflected glory of his face after meeting with the Lord. Here on the mountain, to reveal his reality, Jesus momentarily lifted the veil and let his glory flash forth. No wonder John writes, "We have seen his glory."

God with Us

All through the Old Testament, the lament of God's people was, "Oh, that the Lord would come and deliver his people." In effect, it was a call for God to break into human life—to intervene on behalf of his people. The lament is intensified by such prophetic declarations as Isaiah 7:14, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Im is a Hebrew preposition meaning "with." The suffix mannu is a pronoun meaning "us." El is one of the Hebrew names for God. Im-manu-el, then, is correctly translated as "God with us"—or, preserving the emphatic final position as the Hebrew does—"With us—God!"

Just as God showed his presence in the lightning on Mount Sinai and in the Shekinah glory in the Most Holy Place and in the fiery cloud, so also he showed his presence when the Word—who (from before the beginning of the world) was with God and was God—tabernacled with mankind and displayed his glory to the disciples and (through them) to all the world from that time onward.

Still, even the incarnation of Christ—Immanuel, "God with us"—was only a prelude, a foreshadowing, of the ultimate appearing of God that is yet to come. The same writer, John, near the end of the last book of the Bible, describes the intrusion of the New Jerusalem into the world that mankind assumes will persist immutably. He records the "loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away' " (Rev. 21:3-4). Here is Immanuel—"God with us"—in his quintessential reality! All the previous manifestations of God in the life of the world, including the incarnation of Christ, are only adumbrations of the final breaking in of God to eradicate human sin and all its effects forever and to usher in unfading glory.

Opening Our Eyes to See

"Show us the Father," Philip said. Didn't he know that since the Son and the Father were one, he who had seen the Son had also seen the Father? Apparently he hadn't grasped that yet. How about you? What does God look like? Do we have to wait for that little boy in Sunday school to finish his drawing?

"Show us God," says the world. "If God would only reveal himself to me, I would believe in him," people say, as though they would be doing him a big favor by believing in him. Haven't you seen Jesus? Isn't he portrayed enough in the Gospels?

God did not abandon our sinful, rebellious world. He has broken into history numerous times and shown himself in various ways, but most clearly and most notably through his Son. There is all the portrait you need. People who demand more are like the rich man who argued in one of Jesus' parables that the warnings of someone who has come back from the dead would have more impact than the warnings given in Scripture (Luke 16:27-31). Not so.

The problem is not with the evidence; the problem is with our ability and willingness to see it. It is not the biblical portrayal of God, and especially of Jesus, that is unclear. It is the cataracts on our eyes that obscure the picture.

The wonderful, brilliant, surpassing love of God for hateful, small-minded, selfish, treasonous sinners is gloriously displayed in the life and death of his Son. Have you seen the Father? If you haven't seen both his infinite justice and his infinite mercy, there is no hope for you once these passing days and years are finished. If you haven't seen the Father, come to Jesus, who displayed the saving love and mercy of God by paying the penalty for your sins in his death on the cross, so that you might be delivered from condemnation. He earned eternal bliss for you by his life of perfect obedience. Come to him, repent, and live.

Mr. MacDonald is a ruling elder at Pilgrim OPC in Bangor, Maine. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 1997.

New Horizons: December 1997

Show Us the Father

Also in this issue

The Way of True Happiness: A Meditation on the First Psalm (Part 2)

The OPC and Abortion

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