February 20, 2024

Theophany and Christophany

Barry Cooper
Theophany and Christophany

If we’re paying attention in our Bible reading, we’ll find that the New Testament isn’t the first place we meet Jesus. Today, Barry Cooper considers the Old Testament appearances of Christ and the Lord’s heart to be present with His people.


You know those songs where in the final chorus, everything suddenly goes up a key? 

They call it “the truck driver’s gear shift” because it often sounds clunky and awkward, something dropped in near the end which gives the song a dramatic conclusion but feeling sort of disconnected from what’s gone before. 

I think some Christians think of Jesus in that way: not really present in the Old Testament, so that when He arrives in the New Testament, there can be a sense of discontinuity from what’s gone before. It can feel, well, like a truck driver’s gear shift.

But if we’re paying attention to the Old Testament, we’ll find that by the time we meet Jesus Christ in the New Testament, it’s not actually the first time we’ve met Him. We’ve already been introduced. 

In the Old Testament, there are frequent “theophanies” and “Christophanies.” The word theophany comes from the Greek word theos (meaning “God”) and the Greek verb meaning “to appear.” So a theophany is an appearance of God. And a Christophany is an appearance of Christ. Let me give some examples.

In the garden of Eden, as described in Genesis chapter 3, Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden.” In Genesis chapter 12, verse 7, and again in chapter 17,  verse 1, we’re told that “the LORD appeared to Abram” and spoke to him. Again, in Genesis chapter 18, we read that “the LORD appeared to Abraham.” In Genesis chapter 32, Jacob even wrestles with someone he later identifies as God. He says, “I have seen God face to face.” 

In Exodus chapter 24, we read that “Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up [Mount Sinai], and they saw the God of Israel.”

Exodus chapter 33 even says that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Even more frequent are references to God “appearing” in clouds of smoke and fire. These, too, are theophanies. Think of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3, where a voice addresses Moses by name from the fire, and the voice identifies Himself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Think of Exodus chapter 13, where we’re told that “the LORD went before [the people of Israel] by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.” 

There are also numerous Old Testament appearances of someone described as “the angel of the LORD” but who is—unlike other angels—treated as worthy of worship and who is identified with God Himself.

In a remarkable passage, the Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, verse 4, speaks of God’s people in the Old Testament being led through the wilderness by Christ. 

And Jude is similarly quite explicit about the identity of the One who delivered God’s people from slavery in the Old Testament: “I want to remind you [he says] . . . that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.”

So Jesus Christ is indeed present in the Old Testament—we have it on the authority of the New Testament. 

And that helps us answer what would otherwise be a very tricky question. How is it that God—who the Apostle Paul calls “the invisible God”—can appear to Abraham and Moses, or be spoken to “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend,” or be physically wrestled with by Jacob?

How is it that God can be visible, when God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live”?

The Apostle Paul puts the answer plainly in Colossians chapter 1: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. Jesus Christ is the One who makes the invisible visible.

Now, these Old Testament appearances of Christ were of course preincarnate theophanies. Only when Christ “became flesh” in Bethlehem did the world witness the ultimate theophany, the ultimate appearance of God. 

John chapter 1 puts it like this: 

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side [Christ], has made [the Father] known.

Or to put it another way, we cannot see God the Father—and yet “anyone who has seen [Christ] has seen the Father.”

Now what does all this mean for us? What difference does it make that the invisible God has made Himself visible to His people in Christ? 

Among other things, it shows—quite tangibly—the disposition of God towards us. Though He is “the invisible God,” in Christ He does not hide from us. He wants to be known by us. To be seen. To be interacted with—even wrestled with. Throughout Scripture, God makes His people a stunning promise: “I will make my dwelling among [you] and walk among [you].” Just as Christ once walked in Eden. 

Theophanies show that the heart of God is to be physically and visibly and inseparably present with His people. 

The Christ who, in the Old Testament, appeared in an always-visible pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night and led His people through the wilderness and (we are told) “did not depart from them” is the same Christ who says, in the New Testament, “I am with you always.”