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What Is a Theophany in the Bible?

What Is a Theophany in the Bible?
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God does not remain distant from our lives. From the description of God “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8), God is actively involved in the world. Furthermore, this activity is not from a distance; God is not removed from the world. Throughout the scriptures, God manifests God’s presence in visible and tangible ways. The word used to describe such an occurrence is “Theophany.”

Theophanies reveal God’s glory and highlight God’s purpose in our lives. The theophany of the burning bush, for example, was instrumental in Moses becoming the leader God called him to be. Theophanies reconnect us to the ongoing story of redemption and help us understand God’s interaction in our lives. How then do we go about discerning the reality of theophanies in our lives? This leads us to an important question: “Do theophanies still occur today?” Below are four important factors to consider.

Understanding Theophanies

Theophanies describe any visible manifestation of God’s presence in the world. Most examples are found in the Old Testament and contain a description of “The angel of the LORD.” The angel of the LORD is different from an angelic messenger. The angel of the LORD is the physical manifestation of God. For example, when the angel of the LORD declares to Israel “I brought you up out of Egypt and lend you into the Land I swore to give your ancestors” (Judges 2:1), it is Yahweh who is speaking. The angel of the LORD, therefore, is the visible presence of God upon the earth.

This means that a theophany is different from a vision or a dream. Throughout the scriptures, God uses dreams and vision to bring instruction, guidance, or encouragement. A vision or dream, however, is not a physical manifestation of God. God only appears in the mind (or heart) of the dreamer. Thus, while visions and dreams are ways that God communicates with God’s people, they do not visibly manifest God’s presence in the world.

This raises an interesting question. If a theophany is the visible presence of God on earth, does this mean that Jesus was a theophany? No. Jesus Christ is not a manifestation of God; Jesus is God. The incarnation is the permanent revelation of the second person of the Trinity. This makes it distinctly different than, say, the burning bush. While the Lord “appeared to Moses in flames of fire within a bush” (Exodus 3:2), this certainly does not suggest that God is a burning bush! Yet this is precisely what we claim for the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is God. The two are inseparable.

Additionally, there is never a moment when God stops being Jesus. The second person of the Trinity is always, and eternally, the crucified and risen Lord. Again, this is different from God’s appearance in the burning bush. Obviously, there was a moment when God’s appearance in the burning bush ended. This makes the incarnation fundamentally different than the various theophanies of Scripture. 

Example of Theophanies in the Old Testament

Many of the theophanies that we find in scripture primarily occur in Genesis. One of the most profound examples is when three visitors visit Abraham and Sarah by the great tree of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15). Despite Abraham’s experience of three visitors, the text makes clear that “The Lord appeared to Abraham” (vs 1). Although three figures appear before Abraham, they represent the one Lord. This fact becomes clearer when the Lord responds to Sarah’s laughter. Here the text indicates that “The Lord said to Abraham “why did Sarah laugh...” (verse 13). It is God who speaks to Abraham and not merely an angelic messenger. 

This manifestation of God is intriguing because it shows God to be one-in-three. The unity of God’s nature is displayed as three “persons”, each separate and distinct, yet equally a part of God’s fullness. This theophany, therefore, is one of the earliest revelations of the divine Trinity.

Another example of God appearing on earth is when Jacob wrestles the angel (Genesis 32:24-30). Again, the text makes clear that Jacob wrestles with God, and not a random individual, or even an angelic messenger. In response to his experience, Jacob calls the place Peniel, stating, “I have seen God face to face and my life has been spared” (32:30). Similarly, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, a name which means “struggles with God.” There is no doubt, therefore, that Jacob interacts with a God in physical form.

Examples of Theophanies in the New Testament

Theophanies are less common in the New Testament, although there are notable exceptions. One of the prime examples is the descent of the Spirit, both at Christ’s baptism and on the day of Pentecost. Scripture records that the Spirit descends in the physical form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16), and as tongues of fire at Pentecost (Acts 2:3) These are not mere visions or hallucinations. The Spirit is revealed in a visible, physical way.

Another instance is in found in the stoning of Stephen, Here Stephen “looked up to heaven and saw the saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). It is important to remember that the Greek word for “heaven” can also mean “sky above.” As Stephen casts his gaze upward, the skies open to reveal the glory of God and the presence of Jesus. Although Stephen is the only one who sees this take place, the passage affirms that this occurs in the context of the world. In other words, Stephen is not having a mystical vision. Stephen sees Jesus sitting on the right hand of God with his physical eyes.

New Testament theophanies, like that of Abraham’s three visitors, often reveal the trinitarian nature of God. The theophany of Christ’s baptism, for example, contains all three persons of the Trinity; the audible voice of the Father declares the divine Sonship of Jesus while the Holy Spirit descends. A similar trinitarian emphasis occurs in Stephen’s experience. Stephen is “empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55) to see Jesus sitting on the right hand of the Father’s glory. The three members of the Trinity are present in this act of revelation.

Theophanies Today

Theophanies are largely confined to the revelatory events in Scripture. Does this mean that there are no theophanies today? Absolutely not! In fact, theophanies occur every day.

As Christians, the question we must ask ourselves is not “How can I experience a theophany?” but rather “How can I be a theophany?” After all, if a theophany is a manifestation of God’s presence in the world, then this is precisely the call that Christians have. Our lives are to herald the presence of Jesus. Jesus calls us to this very way of life when he says “let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We are made in the image of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit for this purpose. Thus, Christians today are the very places through which Christ is revealed to the world.

With the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, it is the life and witness of Christ’s followers that become the vehicle for God’s theophany. God no longer needs to appear in burning bushes, or in divine visitations, as God’s presence is to be seen through our lives. Paul writes that “we who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image, with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our lives are the means through which the glory of the heavenly Father is revealed.

How are you called to reveal the presence of Christ in the world? In what way can you “shine your light” so that Jesus is known, recognized, and received? This is the heart of a theophany and the call of our Christian lives.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/thekopmylife

SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at,, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.

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