• Ethan Hardin

Theophany

Updated: Apr 4




This post corresponds with our Lenten Study Session series, On the Trail to Skull Hill. In this session, we discuss the glory of God revealed at the cross.

Watch Cross | Session 6


John’s gospel opens with some of the most exciting language in all of the Scriptures. The light of the world coming, people becoming children of God, and the Word becoming flesh. These memorable phrases ring of Genesis fulfilled, of hope incarnate, of God’s activity through the life of Jesus. John is seeing so much of the contours of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) coming to dramatic fruition in the story of Jesus. Here, in his opening chapter, he makes a remarkable assertion, one that scholar Richard Bauckham (Gospel of Glory) helps us ruminate on.


John writes that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17b). This word pair, charis and aletheia, is very important in our understanding of God. John mentions it twice (1:14, 1:17) in this opening chapter, connecting these attributes as the continuation of God’s revelation to Moses.


This Moses reference is helpful for us to get inside John’s head and attempt to see what he sees. It helps us further pinpoint the allusion John is drawing to mind: the Sinai theophany. A theophany is an appearance of God. In the case of Exodus 34, Moses directly asks God to reveal his glory, his kavod. In turn, God passes by proclaiming his name. His reputation. His character. Let’s read what Moses heard from the voice of God as he passed by in proclamation.

The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,
“Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
even children in the third and fourth generations.”
Moses immediately threw himself to the ground and worshiped.
Exodus 34:6-8 NLT

I’ve bolded the word-pair that becomes shorthand for this paragraph-long name. These are big words with many nuances, so they often appear as other English words. To be fair, the LXX (Greek version of the OT) uses a different word for the first of these words (eleos “mercy/compassion” rather than charis “grace/favor”; see BDAG). This is likely due to the many nuances of the Hebrew chesed. This is a covenant kind of love that can draw to mind “loyalty,” “faithfulness,” “favor,” and “graciousness” (HALOT). Likewise, the second word, emet, is translated as “truth” but can be translated as “fidelity” or “faithfulness” because it is a relational term. John seems to be picking the nuances he feels best describes God’s character to his audience. Given John’s focus on glory, Bauckham is confident that “grace and truth” is a direct allusion to the Sinai theophany. At any rate, this word-pair becomes emblematic for the character of God throughout the Scriptures. For students of the Bible, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that God’s self-definition includes steadfast love and fidelity. The Bible Project team crafted a visual commentary on the Exodus 34:6-7 name of God, along with a whole series exploring his attributes in depth, if you want to dive further into the name of God.


But what is surprising is the near context of this passage: the idolatry of Israel (Ex. 32). Weeks prior, Israel had been dramatically rescued from Egyptian slavery (Ex. 13:17-22), treading the parted Reed Sea (Ex. 14:15-31) and celebrating God’s rescue in joyous song (Ex. 15:1-20). And days before, Israel had been proposed to at the base of Sinai (Ex. 19:4-6), sprinkled in the blood of the covenant to seal their relationship (Ex. 24:1-8), and then asked to wait in anticipation for the covenant tablets (Ex. 31:18). Yet in their waiting, Israel’s faithfulness proved thin. They opted to erect a golden calf (quite a complement in ancient Near Eastern iconography) to use as a focal point in their worship of Yahweh (breaking the first two commands). Imagine finding your new spouse kissing another person in between the wedding ceremony and the honeymoon. That’s the kind of fleeting fidelity Israel showed. What would God do?


There’s a breathtaking conversation between Moses and God, a justly angry descent of Moses, and eventually, a merciful opportunity for covenant renewal. God has Moses make new tablets (read “forge new wedding rings”). Perhaps Israel would not come through on their vows, but God would show his character, his glory, to his people. He would show them what he was made of. And God’s proclamation, his steadfast love and faithfulness, literally floors Moses. As it should us.


And here, in John, we are invited to see an even fuller theophany, where the depth of God’s love and faithfulness is lifted high - on a cross. Indeed, this is the glory of God, that in an act of deicide, he remains unwaveringly in love with his people. The Romans and Jews subject God the Son to the most humiliating and excruciating methods of torture. From the outside, it looks like another criminal’s painful death. But for those who have eyes to see, it is the glorious love of God that sends his people to their knees in adoration. Can you look upon that love and not be moved? Can you look upon that glory and not die to self? Can you look upon God’s character and not respond? In moments of abject disobedience - at Sinai, at Golgotha - God reveals his faithfulness, a costly faithfulness that mets out justice in restraint and mercy in abundance. The cross, in all its visceral mockery, is indeed a theophany, the glory, the heart of God being shown in full.


As a closing thought, ruminate over these excerpted lyrics from songwriter Michael Gungor:


Prepare the way of the Lord
Wielding mercy like a sword
Every mountaintop will be made low
Know, He holds the earth like dust
And His judgement comes to us
And His judgement is love
Look upon the cross
See the face of Christ
See the mercy in His eyes
Every valley shall be lifted high
Now our enemies are blessed
The heavy laden rest
For His judgement is love
His judgement is love

- Michael Gungor, “His Judgment is Love”
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