To see God

Have you ever wished you could see God? Or how many times have you prayed for a friend or family member who was suffering, asking God to reveal himself in some way, to give them a tangible sense of his presence?

Sometimes, in a world that is still broken and in need of healing, faith reaches out in this way, seeking comfort and reassurance.

Even Jesus’ own disciples needed reassurance. At their last meal together, Jesus spoke of his coming betrayal, and told them he would be leaving soon. Not surprisingly, they were troubled at the news. Where was he going? Jesus tried to explain, but they weren’t yet able to understand. Finally, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8, CEB), as if to say, “All right, if we can’t go with you, if we can’t even know where you’re going, at least give us a vision of God. That’ll keep us going.”

Jesus’ answer must have stunned them. “Really, Philip? After all this time, haven’t you figured out who I am? I don’t have to show you the Father. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (vs. 9).

Attentive readers of the Fourth Gospel, however, shouldn’t be surprised. John has tried to tell us this since the beginning:

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. …From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known. (John 1:14, 16-18, CEB)

Glory, grace, and truth: these are all words associated with God. John is telling us that Jesus is the visible presence of God, in whom we see all the fullness of God’s grace and truth. The Law was good, but it came through an intermediary; Jesus Christ is himself the embodiment of grace and truth. And because of this, we have received grace on top of grace.

“No one has ever seen God,” John says. But wait — didn’t Moses speak with God face to face, so that God’s radiance made Moses’ face shine? Aren’t there others in Scripture who speak of seeing God?

There’s no question that God has manifested himself to his people at different times in different ways. But God himself told Moses that no one could see his face, the fullness of his glory, and survive (Exod 33:20-23). The New Testament story of the Transfiguration, for example, gives just a hint of how stupefying such an experience would be.

Thus, God revealed himself in ways we could tolerate. I don’t think John means that we can see the entirety of the Father’s glory in the man Jesus, especially given the conversation between Jesus and Philip, who still didn’t get it. I do think, however, that John is pushing us to what may be a whole new understanding of glory itself.

It’s easy to think of glory in terms of the miraculous signs Jesus performs in the first part of John’s gospel, or the radiance of the Transfiguration (the story of which John actually omits). Those are things we would consider “glorious.”

But who thinks of glory in terms of the humiliation and torture of a cross?

John does. And apparently, so does Jesus.

We will have to return to this theme repeatedly throughout our study of John’s gospel. For now, suffice it to say that John seems to think that the humility of Jesus shows us something essential about God. The sacrificial death of “God the only Son” (literally, the “only begotten God”) is neither a divine aberration nor a hastily conceived Plan B to fix what human being broke. It reveals what God is like.

And that may mean some rethinking of the glory we pray to see. More on that in the next post, which takes us from John to Paul.