Vision is the powerful sense by which we gain so much of our information about life. We know that “seeing is not believing” but it is always hard to doubt what we see.
No one has ever seen God. It was the normal understanding of the Bible that God was not visible. Paul wrote to Timothy of “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen of can see.” He described Jesus as “the image of the invisible God”. As Jesus himself taught “God is Spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth”.
Therefore, God is not to be presented by the visual arts and crafts of humanity. Idolatry is always wrong for it does not represent God but rather misrepresents him. There can be no statue or painting that can express for us what God is like. Rather we sing the hymn
“Immortal, Invisible, God only wise.
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”
For as it says in the first of the 39 Articles
“There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.”
The shape or form of God is not how we relate to God. As Moses reminded the Israelites of the time when they met God on Mt Sinai: “You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.”
Yet in the Old Testament there were moments when people appear to have seen God. The elders of Israel in Exodus 24 “saw the God of Israel” on Mt Sinai, and yet when they “saw” him all they saw was the ground under his feet. Moses asked to see the Glory of God but was only permitted to see the back of God’s glory as he passed by. Isaiah in the temple when king Uzziah died of leprosy saw “the lord” in his sovereign holiness. Yet the description of that vision omits any reference to the physical appearance of God. The closest to a physical description of God is that the train or hem of his robe filled the temple. Otherwise, the whole vision was about the appearance of the kingly power, majesty and holiness.
All these “appearances” of God, use the language of seeing a physical presence but give nothing but a metaphorical description of God. Some emphasize his power and might others his holiness and presence but none his form or outward appearance.
One characteristic of these appearances of God is the overwhelming sense of human sinfulness. Moses who is said to know God “face to face” (a Hebrew way of saying personally or intimately) was told, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live”. This was exactly Isaiah’s concern when he cried, “Woe to me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips”.
So it is ‘extraordinary’ in the full sense of the word when God became man – the Word became flesh – and dwelt among us. John captures the astonishing news in this way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us”.
Yet what seems so strange to idolatrous eyes is that there is no description of what Jesus looked like. There is no mention of whether he was tall or short, fat or thin, blue eyed or brown, fair or dark. It is as if his physical appearance is of no significance at all for only his glory is mentioned: “and we beheld his glory”. To a society more concerned with style over substance and which spends so much time and money on fashion, jewellery, cosmetics and the visual media of film and TV, this Biblical lack of interest in Jesus’ appearance is strange indeed.
On the other hand, what is really strange is that when God did appear in the man Jesus, people did not see his glory but rather rejected, despised and crucified him. It is truly bizarre that face to face with God instead of being overwhelmed with a sense of our sinfulness we chose to express our sinfulness by killing him. There is nothing quite so perverse as our sinfulness.