The Old Testament contains numerous references about God actually A appearing to human beings, either in dreams (Gen.20:3), through a messenger (Judges 6:11), or in personal manifestations of His presence called theophanies (theos ["God"] and phaino ["appear"]) (Exod. 19:9)1
God usually comes as a warrior to fight and to judge the nations, or to deliver His people from the power and oppression of some enemy power (Isa. 30:27;Mic. 1:3,4; 3:1,2; Zech. 14:5-11).
The intervention of God in human history was eagerly awaited by His people; in fact, on many occasions it provided them their hope for the future. The manifestations of God to individuals, or to the people, were particularly impressive because they were often accompanied by extraordinary phenomena in the natural world, as well as by a display of God's glory and power. Those interventions of God in history, though unusual, nevertheless served as models for His future eschatological manifestation in human affairs.
Christ's return: The theophany
From a Christian perspective we could suggest that those earlier theophanies were precursors to the great and glorious coming of our Lord Jesus Christ at the eschaton. In many ways they were a pallid reflection of the unprecedented display of glory that humans will witness at Christ's return. The Scriptures testify that Jesus will come back in the splendor of His divinity. He said to the disciples that the Son of Man will come " 'in his Father's glory with the holy angels' " (Mark 8:38, NIV). Shortly before the Crucifixion He prayed," 'Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began' " (John 17:5). The glory of the pre-incarnated Son is the same glory that will be displayed by Him at the Second Coming. Peter refers to that event as the time when Christ's "glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:13). His glory was concealed during the Incarnation under the veil of human flesh, and for now it is still concealed in heaven, but at the end it will be fully revealed to the world.
In the Bible the glory of God often refers to His character (John 1:14) and to His unique nature, which distinguishes God from the created world. There is simply no one like Him because there is no other Creator; everything that exists is part of His creation.
But His "glory" also refers to the brightness of the impenetrable light that surrounds His person (1 Tim. 6:16). That same glory belongs by nature to the Son of God and will be revealed, as never before, at the Parousia. In that glorious theophany all other theophanies find their full significance in a manner that transcends human imagination.
The occasional use of the term "epiphany" in the New Testament, to designate the return of our Lord, sup ports the view that Christ will return to the planet and display the glory of His divinity. In 1 Timothy 6:14 Paul uses the phrase "the appearing [epiphaneia] of our Lord Jesus Christ" (cf. 2 Tim. 4:8); in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 the terms "epiphany" and "parousia" are combined to designate that same glorious event. The Greek term epiphaneia, in secular Greek, referred to the outward appearance of a person but in religious contexts it designated the appearance and intervention of the gods on behalf of humans.2 Interestingly, in the New Testament, it exclusively refers to the appearance of Jesus at the Incarnation (2 Tim. 1:10), and particularly to His manifestation at the Parousia. His presence is indeed a religious epiphany, the manifestation of God in human flesh at the Incarnation and "the glorious appearing [epiphaneia] of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ," at the Second Coming (Titus 2:13,14a). One is led to conclude that "the early Church saw in the incarnation of Jesus Christ as well as in his second advent the final parousia, the personal realization of the promised 'coming of God' "3 announced in the Old Testament.
Titus 2:13, 14 refers to the "glorious epiphany" of the One who is coming, "our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ." His coming can be described as glorious because the One who is re turning is in fact "our great God and Savior."4 Although He is still human at His coming, Christ's glorious divinity shines through His human nature in all its unprecedented purity and power. Again, when Jesus conies the second time, the human race will witness the most powerful and glorious theophany ever seen on our planet. Our God and Savior will explode into our time and space in all His glory. This will indeed be the consummation of all previous theophanies.5
Christ's theophany transforms nature
The uniqueness of the theophany of Christ at His second coming can be better grasped by contrasting it with those recorded in the Old Testament, which were geographically limited in their ex tent. For instance, He appeared to Abraham near the trees of Mamre (Gen. 18:1), to Moses in the wilderness (Exod. 3:1), and partially at least to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai (19:16-18). Even God's surpassing presence in human form in Jesus was limited to Palestine.
Often the manifestation of the presence of the Lord was accompanied by the sound of trumpets and by extraordinary natural phenomena: The ground was shaken and there were thick clouds and fearful fire (19:18, 19). Nature seemed to have been totally unable to contain the awesome presence of the Creator as He came to visit it.
In contrast with these localized appearances, the return of the Lord Jesus Christ at the eschaton transcends geographical boundaries and encompasses in a mysterious way the totality of earth. This universal dimension was absent in all other theophanies recorded in the Bible, making it the consummation of God's presence in this world. When God's visible presence is felt within this world, the theophanic elements mentioned in the Bible acquire universal dimensions. The earthquake affects every mountain and island of the world (Rev. 6:14), the sound of the trumpet reaches every corner of the planet (1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:31), and fire envelops the earth (2 Peter 3:10). Nothing escapes the upheaval of nature at the moment of the return of our great God and Savior.
The intention of the visible presence of God within nature is to transform it, and to redeem it from the oppression of sin. His manifestation within nature may take the shape of fire, but it is a purifying fire. For Moses, the bush was on fire, but in the process it was incorporated by God into the realm of the holy (Exod. 3:4-5). At the manifestation of Christ's divine power, the fire of His presence engulfs nature, not to destroy it but to redeem it. Paul indicates that through the eschatological theophany, creation "will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21).
Christ's theophany is inescapably visible
Secondly, the apparitions of God recorded in the Bible were experienced by a limited group of people. Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites encountered His presence in personal ways, but also Job (38:1),Elijah (1 Kings 19:ll-13),Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-4), and others. Most of the time, the presence of the Lord was manifested only to individuals. But undoubtedly, the greatest theophany recorded in the Old Testament took place on Mount Sinai, when "Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. . . . The whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of trumpets grew louder and louder" (Exod. 19:17,19). That day the Lord appeared "in the sight of all the people" (19:11). This time God appeared not only to the leaders and mediators of the people but directly to the totality of the religious community. No other nation had had a close encounter with their gods like the Israelites had with theirs (Deut. 4:32-34).
Yet the return of our God and Savior in glory will break the mold of all previous theophanies in that it will be witnessed by every human being on earth. Jesus stated that" 'all the nations of the earth ... will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory'" (Matt. 24:30). John conveys, in crystal clear language, the global display of Christ's divinity at the Parousia: "He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him" (Rev. 1:7). That theophany will be the great est saving show of light and sound ever experienced by any human being; the glory, the light, and the sounds of heaven intersect the darkness and cacophony of a sinful planet. Sinners will be shaken to the core of their being as they see the Crucified One coming back dressed now in the splendor of the same glory He had with the Father from eternity (Rev. 6:15). He will be seen by His enemies as the Divine Warrior whose sole presence is powerful enough to defeat and destroy them (2 Thess. 2:8). At the sight of such a Warrior the forces of evil will lose their will to fight, and possessed by terror they will unsuccessfully seek a place of refuge to hide them from the universal manifestation of God at the Second Coming. There is no way to escape the visible presence of God because there is no place on the planet where it is not forcefully felt; at that moment there is no hiding place for sin and unrepentant sinners.
The visibility of such theophany engulfs the planet in an explosion of light that makes the presence of Jesus real and visible and moves the re deemed to shout, " 'Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us'" (Isa. 25:9). They will have an unparalleled encounter with God. Then, one of the deepest longings of the human heart to see the Creator and Redeemer will be fully satisfied. The Divine Warrior will be seen by them not as an enemy but as the One who is coming from His heavenly dwelling to liberate them from the oppressive presence of evil. To see Him is to experience the consummation of the freedom He gave them during His first advent.
Christ's theophany and permanent re-unification
Third, biblical theophanies are limited by time constraints. God appeared in a visible way to individuals for a short period of time. There were both elements of encounter and elements of separation, a coming together and a departure. Consequently, there was not in those theophanies a permanent re-unification of God and humans in a face-to-face relationship. The plan of redemption had not yet reached its ultimate goal. But at the second coming of Jesus, the plan of salvation will be fully realized and His presence among His people will be visible and permanent.
Paul points with visionary eye to the Parousia and equates it with the moment when "we will be with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4:17). Transformed by the power of God manifested in the person of His Son, His servants are then enabled to exist in His very presence. This theophany is not simply another theophany. Instead, it defines our new mode of existence free from the power of death, ushered into the realm of the eternal, and bringing all separation to a radical end (1 Cor. 15:51-54). Living permanently in the immediate visible presence of God will no longer be the unexpected, extraordinary, and transitory experience it has been, but rather the normal, permanent state of things in our new existence.
Paul makes it clear that the Great God who is coming is the One "who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness" (Titus 2:14). It is when the mortal is clothed with immortality that human nature is finally divested of the enslaving power of wickedness and set free to love in purity of heart. Yes, humans will be able to express love in an effortless way, free from the distorting presence of sin in their nature.6 Entering eternity with God requires this fundamental transformation of human nature because the heavenly realm is ruled by the purity of divine love which was incarnated in the One who is coming.
Christians joyfully anticipate the eschatological coming of the Son of God to our planet. The God who comes is the same who was crucified for us but now appears for us as the Divine Warrior who confronts the forces of evil and defeats them by the power of His presence. The encounter between God and nature will result in the transformation of the natural world, its final incorporation into the glorious freedom of the children of God. It is through Christ's appearing that human nature will experience ultimate freedom from the inward corruption of sin, introducing the redeemed ones into a permanent vision of God, of which all previous ones have been faint symbols.
1. On the subject of "the coming of God" in the Old Testament see, Horst Dietrich Preuss," 'Bo "'in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2, G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975), 44-49.
2. Rudolf Bultmann and Dieter Liihrmann, "Phaino" in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 9, Gerhard Friedrich, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), 8. P. G. Muller writes, "The word in secular Greek already indicated the appearance of the saving deity and the experience of the saving act. But it also designated the cultic presence of the god-like ruler of the Hellenistic-Roman state cult" ("Epiphaneia appearance," in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, eds. [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991], 44).
3. Muller, "Epiphaneia" 44.
4. The phrase "our great God and Savior" refers only to one person, Jesus. In Greek whenever a noun has a definite article and is united to an indefinite noun by the conjunction kai ("and"), the two nouns designate the same person or thing. Besides, the thought expressed in verse 13 is carried on in verse 14 where the subject of the sentence is a singular pronoun referring to Jesus ("who gave himself..."). See George W. Knight III, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), 323.
5. Cf., Fritz Guy, "The Future and the Present: The Meaning of the Advent Hope," in The Advent Hope in Scripture, and History, V. Norskov Olsen, ed. (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987), 217, 218.
6. See Guy, "Meaning," 223.