God appeared frequently to saints of the Old Testament. He came as a smoking oven and flaming torch to Abram (Genesis 15:17), and later as three men before Abraham’s tent by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). He showed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), and to Israel in a fiery cloud (Exodus 16:10). When He appeared to Korah, the earth opened and swallowed the rebels, and He appeared to Manoah’s wife with the good news about a son (Judges 13:3) and to Samuel with grim news for the house of Eli (1 Samuel 3:21). Time would fail me if I enumerated all of Yahweh’s appearances to kings, prophets, judges, women.
All those appearances pale in comparison with the appearance of God in and as Jesus. Those who saw Jesus saw the Father, and after His resurrection Jesus appeared to many witnesses and promised to appear again. The Old Testament epiphanies are fleeting: Yahweh is here, then He’s not, like the flicker of a flame. Jesus stuck around. He didn’t pop in and then ascend in the smoke of a sacrifice, like the Angel of Yahweh did to Manoah. He could slip through a crowd when necessary, but He was there, tangible, visible, audible, localized in a boat on the sea of Galilee or in the temple courts or out in the wilderness praying to His Father. His disciples got to spend three years learning the timbre of His voice, watching the expressions of His face, feeling the energy of His passions—the voice, face, passions of the Son of God.
But then . . . He left again. The Son pitched his tent in flesh, lived, died, rose, and then packed up the tent and disappeared almost as quickly as He had come. How is this different from the epiphanies of old? What makes this an event worth celebrating as the Epiphany of God? Light shines in darkness, but then the light goes out, goes elsewhere, and what then? Does darkness descend?
We have to match Epiphany with Pentecost to solve this puzzle. Jesus came and left, but He did not leave the world in darkness. He appeared and disappeared, but He didn’t leave the world without an epiphany of God. He left, but He did not leave us orphans. He came back to us, in the Spirit. The light of Jesus returned forty days after it left, when the lightsome Spirit descended on the disciples. The epiphany of God in the Son is definitive, even if temporary, because it is quickly followed by the appearance of God the Spirit.
It’s not a very satisfying answer. The Spirit here is as invisible as Jesus is in heaven. At least at Pentecost, the Spirit made the apostles human torches, but we don’t even have that to go by. We are left searching for an apparent God. The Spirit is light and the Spirit has come, but what good is invisible light? The Spirit has come, but where can we find God in the solidity of flesh?
John, the apostle of incarnation, provides the answer. In his first letter, he makes this astounding claim: “as He is, so also are we in this world” (4:17). He sent His Spirit, but that Spirit shows Himself in flesh too, our flesh. By shining in the darkness, and by fueling us with the oil of His Spirit, Jesus lit us up so that we can be lights in the world, lamps on a lampstand.
What John says is evident all through the New Testament, once we begin looking for it. Nearly everything Scripture says about Jesus is said about His disciples who have become like Him by the work of His Spirit. He is Son, we are sons. He is King, we are kings and priests in Him. He is the chief cornerstone of a new temple, we are all living stones. He is a dwelling place of God, but the Spirit inhabits us too. He is in the Father and the Father in Him, but by the Spirit they dwell in us and we in them. He is Christed by the Spirit, but we are christened by the very same Spirit. He died and rose, we die and rise in Him. In sum: “As He is, so also are we in this world.”
Jesus came and went away. He appeared and disappeared. But the Epiphany of the Son is not ephemeral but permanent in Pentecost. It is thick and sturdy as flesh, as tangible as the flesh of Chinese Christians gathering in secret for worship, as substantial as Nigerian Christians suffering with joy at the hands of Muslim persecutors, as dazzlingly visible as nuns caring for disabled children in an Indian slum.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).