How Can We Know an Invisible God?

Colossians 1:15 says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Set in the context of a hymn worshiping Christ for his works of creation, providence, and salvation, Paul reflects on this sublime truth: The invisible God who dwells in unapproachable light has made himself known in the identity of Jesus Christ.

Set at the center of the Christian gospel, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, ties at least three truths about God together. If you are wondering how you can know an invisible God, perhaps this biblical meditation might help.

1. The Hidden God: Invisible, Unapproachable, Incomprehensible

The Bible repeatedly speaks about God’s invisibility and incomprehensibility.  In other words, Scripture affirms that men cannot see the invisible God.  Consider these verses.

Exodus 33:20. “‘But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’”

Isaiah 45:15. Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.

John 1:18. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”

1 Timothy 6:16. “Who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.”

1 John 4:12a. “No one has ever seen God.”

1 John 4:20. “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

While it is vitally important to recognize that this invisible God has spoken, we must also consider man’s inability to know him by means of our efforts. Because of our creatureliness, we can’t ‘get’ to him. And because of our fallenness, our sinful nature makes it lethal to come into the courts of the holy God.

2. God Has Revealed Himself Visibly 

Despite the Bible’s repeated admonition that men cannot see God and live (Exod 33:20), the Bible has a history of God’s people seeing God and yet living.  Some of the witnesses of God’s glory include Jacob, Moses, the elders of Israel, Israel themselves, Gideon (saw the Angel of the Lord), Samson’s parents, and Isaiah.

Genesis 32:30. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.

Exodus 24:10-11. And they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

Exodus 33:11. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.

Deuteronomy 5:24. And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live.

Judges 6:22. Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.”

Judges 13:22. And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.”

Isaiah 6:5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

From these encounters, it is evident that God longs to be seen. Even as his personal essence is invisible and unapproachable, God has created a visible world to reflect his glory. Moreover, he has made man in his image to see him and be like him (cf 1 John 3:2).

In the beginning, Adam and Eve did ‘see’ God in the form of a man (the preincarnate Christ) walking in the Garden. Tragically, when Adam sinned, humanity lost the right to dwell in God’s presence. God evicted man from Eden. By consequence, an ethical barrier stood between God and man. Man living outside of Eden was no longer permitted to see God and live.

Instead, what fallen man sees are the invisible attributes of God (Rom 1:20). The consequence is that men made in God’s image but now blind from sin and barred from God’s image must grope for God (Acts 17:27). This is the condition of the world. In unrighteousness all men have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness and thus they cannot see God. In a world full of evidence for God, men are blind to him. Nevertheless, the God who is invisible is not silent.

3. God’s Special Revelation: Scripture and the Son

The third point is that the God of creation has spoken to his creatures through the prophets moved along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:19-21). These men did not speak for themselves, they wrote down what God inspired them to say. Thus God revealed himself to Israel and through Israel the world by means of the spoken word. Throughout Scripture, the prophets say again and again,  “thus saith the Lord.”  In this way, God’s invisibility is compensated by his active, speaking voice. For centuries, Israel’s faith was sustained by God’s covenantal promises. Today, saints still feed on these promises.

However, another stage of revelation and vision stands between ancient Israel and the modern church. In the birth of Christ, God made his spoken word visible.

John records that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and was with God, and that this Word created all things (1:1-3). God the Father spoke into existence the universe by means of his Son, the Word. Thus, the universe exists by means of God’s word, but now in Christ, John says that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.  This is the height of revelation and the first step to giving God’s creatures a true perception of God himself.

Notice the exact words of John 1:14-18.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received,grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

In these densely-packed statements John reveals that Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God. Whereas Moses brought a testimony to God, Christ brings the very grace and truth of God. Or since John takes his language from Exodus 34:6-7, Jesus is the very hesed (lovingkindness) and emet (truth/faithfulness) of God. He is God in the flesh. For this reason, John can say that while no one has seen God, Jesus Christ has revealed (lit. exegeted) the living God. Of course, this truth is echoed in John 14 when Jesus says to Thomas that those who have ‘known’ the Son ‘know’ the Father. The language of seeing is not employed, but the concept is there: To see Christ is to see the Father, for Christ is the exact image and likeness of his heavenly Father (see Heb 1:1-2).

Therefore, those who know Jesus Christ through means of the Bible–God’s written word–do not simply know God at a distance, they have seen him with eyes of faith. For this reason, orthodox Christianity is speculative of personal visions of God, or personal and direct revelations to individuals. Since Jesus Christ is the fullest and final revelation of God, and the apostles were given the task of bearing witness to Christ, there is no reason to expect another revelation.

4. The Pure in Heart We Will See God

There is still one more point to make about seeing God: Scripture teaches that while in this age we cannot see God, a day is coming when we will. Those who walk by faith in the invisible God today will behold him at the end of the age. Consider a few passages.

Matthew 5:8. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

1 John 3:2. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. 

1 Corinthians 13:12. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Revelation 22:3-4. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 

What a joy-giving promise. Like a love-sick bride awaiting her groom to come, we await the great day when Christ will return and take us to his wedding feast. Nothing will satisfy us until we behold him and are held by him. Until that day, our yearning hearts take comfort his written word, but even that will not eternally satisfy. Since we were created for intimate communion with God our hearts will not rest until we behold our Beloved.

Recap: How Can We Know an Invisible God?

Simply put, the God who is God has not remained silent. Instead, he has created a visible world (Heb 11:3) that redounds to his glory (Ps 19:1), reveals his eternal power and invisible attributes (Rom 1:20), and serves as a reservoir full of images, symbols, patterns, and people that reveal who God is.

Let me close with these words from Herman Bavinck and John Frame, two men from different eras and different places who both saw in God’s creation images of God that find their key in the person of Christ—the image of the invisible God.

We do not see God as he is in himself. We behold him in his works. We name him according to the manner in which he has revealed himself in his works. To see God face to face is for us impossible, at least here on earth. If, nevertheless, God wills that we should know him, he must needs descend to the level of the creature. He must needs accomodate himself to our limited, finite, human consciousness. (Herman Bavinck, cited by James Jordan, Through New Eyes23)

Everything in creation bears some analogy to God. All the world has been made with God’s stamp on it, revealing Him. Creation is his temple, heaven His throne, earth His footstool. Thus Scripture finds analogies to God in every area of creation: inanimate (God the ‘rock of Israel,’ Christ the ‘door of the sheep,’ the Spirit as “winder,’ ‘breath,’ ‘fire’), plant life (God’s strength like the ‘cedars of Lebanon,’ Christ the ‘bread of life,’), animals (Christ the ‘Lion of Judah,’ the ‘lamb of God,’), human beings (God as king, landowner, lover; Christ as prophet, priest, king, servant, son, friend), abstract ideas (God as spirit, love, light; Christ as way, word, truth, life, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption). Even wicked people reveal their likeness to God, with, of course, much irony—see Luke 18:1-8. (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God230)

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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