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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Personal Attributes of God

Don Stewart :: Did God Ever Take a Physical Form before the Coming of Christ?

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Did God Ever Take a Physical Form before the Coming of Christ? (Theophanies)

The Personal Attributes of God – Question 25

The Bible says that some two thousand years ago God the Son became a human in the Person of Jesus Christ. John the evangelist described it this way.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us... (John 1:14a NASB).

This is the only time God became human and lived with humanity. Previously, God had assumed a temporary physical form on a number of occasions.

The Old Testament Records a Number of Temporary Appearances of God in a Human Form

God, by nature, is an invisible Spirit. No human being has seen Him or is able to see Him. However, at certain times, God took on visible forms to appear to people. These appearances are known as “theophanies.”

There are eight recorded appearances in the Old Testament where God took upon Himself a physical form for a short duration. Three times He appeared as a man and five times as the Angel of the Lord. Each time that this occurred it was in an extraordinary situation. They are as follows.

1. He Appeared to Hagar (Genesis 16:9-13)

Hagar was Abraham’s mistress, the mother of his son Ishmael. Hagar and Ishmael were banished from Abraham and his wife Sarah into the desert. As they were dying of thirst, the Angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar to provide water for the survival of her and her young child.

The Angel of the Lord that appeared to Hagar was God Himself. The Bible says,

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13 NIV)

It was the Lord Himself who spoke to Hagar. God had a plan for Ishmael and his descendants. Therefore, He personally appeared to spare Ishmael from death.

2. God Appeared to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre (Genesis 18:1-33)

Three men appeared to Abraham and his wife Sarah at the plains of Mamre. They had come to inform them concerning two matters. The son that God had promised to the couple would be born to Abraham and Sarah the next year, and the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. One of the three visitors who gave them this information is designated as the Lord. The Bible says,

Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. (Genesis 18:1 NASB)

Clearly, the Bible says that the Lord appeared to Abraham.

In this same passage, this person is called the “Judge of all the earth.”

“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25 NRSV)

This is a title that belongs to God alone. This seems to make it plain that God Himself was among the visitors to Abraham.

3. God Again Appeared to Abraham on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:11-14)

God told Abraham to bring his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. Abraham obeyed. He was about to take Isaac’s life when God intervened. The Angel of the Lord stopped Abraham. The Bible records what then happened.

Then He said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me.” (Genesis 22:12 HCSB)

The Angel, or Messenger, from the Lord told Abraham that it was from Him, that is the Lord, that Abraham did withhold his son. This seems to indicate that the Angel of the Lord was the Lord Himself.

This Angel called a second time to Abraham. His words reflected things which only God Himself could say. We read,

Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command.” (Genesis 22:15-18 HCSB)

In this instance the Angel of the Lord, who called out to Abraham on Mount Moriah, was the Lord Himself.

4. The Lord Appeared to Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32:24-43)

This account has the patriarch Jacob wrestling all night with a man who finally disabled him. The next morning Jacob realized that it was God Himself whom he had wrestled. The Bible says,

Jacob then named the place Peniel, “For,” he said, “I have seen God face to face, and I have been delivered.” (Genesis 32:30 HCSB)

Jacob lost the wrestling match with the Lord, but he did live to tell about it.

5. He Appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2-4, 17)

When Moses received his call from the Lord to lead the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, he saw a bush that was burning, but was not being consumed by the fire. The Bible describes it in this manner.

Suddenly, the angel of the LORD appeared to him as a blazing fire in a bush. Moses was amazed because the bush was engulfed in flames, but it didn’t burn up. “Amazing!” Moses said to himself. “Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go over to see this.” When the LORD saw that he had caught Moses’ attention, God called to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” “Here I am!” Moses replied. “Do not come any closer,” God told him. “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” When Moses heard this, he hid his face in his hands because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:2-6 NLT)

Because of the magnitude of the task Moses was about to undertake, God personally appeared to him by means of the burning bush in the form of the Angel of the Lord.

6. God Appeared to Gideon (Judges 6:11-24)

Gideon was the individual who was called by God to raise an army to defeat the innumerable Midianites. Because this man Gideon was a timid person, God paid him a visit to assure him that all would go well. After the encounter, Gideon realized who had visited him. The Bible records what happened as follows.

Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the Lord; and Gideon said, “Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” (Judges 6:22 NRSV)

Gideon, the judge, had the honor of a direct appearance of God.

7. He Appeared to Samson’s Parents (Judges 13:2-23)

The angel of the Lord appeared to a Hebrew couple to announce the birth of a son. He would grow up and deliver the people of Israel. Because of the importance of the mission, God personally appeared to them. Scripture records the following.

The Angel of the LORD did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. Then Manoah realized that it was the Angel of the LORD. “We’re going to die,” he said to his wife, “because we have seen God!” (Judges 13:21, 22 HCSB)

They realized that the Lord Himself had visited them.

8. The Lord Was in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3:23-29)

The last recorded Old Testament appearance of God in a physical form was to the three young Hebrews in the fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar threw the three young men into the furnace because they refused to worship his golden image. God miraculously spared their lives. Nebuchadnezzar was astonished.

“Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire. They aren’t even hurt by the flames! And the fourth looks like a divine being!” (Daniel 3:25 NLT)

The “divine being” which Nebuchadnezzar saw was most likely, God Himself. However it could have been merely an angelic messenger. The Scripture does not clearly say.

This marks the last of the eight instances where the Lord assumed some type of visible form.

Conclusion: On Certain Occasions, God Temporarily Assumed a Human Body

Thus, we see from Scripture that, for special reasons and on certain occasions, God took upon a human body. These appearances were only temporary. However, they did set the stage for a more permanent visit; the coming of Jesus Christ to the earth.

Summary – Question 25
Did God Ever Take a Physical Form before the Coming of Christ? (Theophanies)

Scripture records that on eight different occasions during the Old Testament period God took on a physical form. Some of these appearances were as the angel of the Lord. They include the following.

The Angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar, the mistress of Abraham after she and her young son were sent away from Abraham and Sarah. Hagar called the place “You are the God who sees me” because God appeared to her.

The Lord also appeared to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. Three angels showed up at the tent of Abraham. One of them was called “the Lord.”

There was also an appearance to Abraham at Mount Moriah when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac. The Angel of the Lord in this instance seems to be the Lord Himself.

Scripture also records an appearance to Jacob at Peniel. Jacob said that he saw the Lord there “face to face.”

The Lord made a special appearance to Moses in a burning bush. Moses realized that he was on holy ground during this visit as the Lord identified Himself from the burning bush.

The Lord appeared in a human-like form to the judge Gideon. Gideon recognized whom it was who appeared to him.

We also find him appearing to the parents of the judge Samson. They too understood that God made a direct appearance to them.

Finally, the Lord appeared with the three young Hebrews in the fiery furnace. King Nebuchadnezzar recognized that the fourth person was a divine being.

These eight brief appearances of God in a physical form teach us several things: When an extraordinary situation occurs, God is willing to personally appear. These occurrences set a precedent. Since God appeared on these occasions for a short duration during the Old Testament period, it set the stage for Him to come in the Person of Jesus Christ to live upon the earth.

Can God Become a Human Being? ← Prior Section
What about Certain Passages That Attribute Human Passions to God? Next Section →
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