If you could Instagram God, what would he look like?

Downtown Nashville features a full-size reproduction of the Parthenon, a temple for the Greek goddess Athena. The name comes from Athena’s title Parthenos — “virgin” — and if you head indoors you can see all fourteen yards of the old girl, decked out in gold.

No one in the ancient pagan world had any trouble imagining what gods and goddesses looked like. A person could just walk into a local temple and see. Or maybe look at the little idols they kept tucked in corner at home.

Of course, for the Christian none of those gods are real, but that doesn’t lessen the impulse to see God. Can we know what God looks like?

No one has seen God, except…

The initial answer might seem like a negative. God is spirit and is invisible. “You cannot see my face,” God himself says in Exodus, “for man shall not see me and live” (33.20). John picks this up in the first chapter of his gospel. “No one has ever seen God,” he says in verse 18.

But Jesus changed that. If he is God, as Christians say, then God became visible in the Incarnation. John records an exchange between Jesus and his disciple Philip that underscores the point. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (14.9).

Prior to the Incarnation, to see God was to see an angel representing him. There are several instances of this in the Old Testament — Jacob wrestling with God, Moses catching a glimpse of his retreating form, and others. We call these theophanies or divine appearances.

But then came Christ in the flesh. Jesus, says Paul, “is the image [icon] of the invisible God” (Col 1.15).

The icon of God

Unlike Athena, Jesus actually walked among people and lived in their sight, which is to say that God walked among people and lived in their sight. If you had your phone, you could have Instagrammed him. (Exactly what filter does a person use on God?)

The patristic writers use exactly this logic to explain their use and veneration of painted icons of Christ.

“How could the invisible be depicted? How could the unimaginable be portrayed?” asks John Damascene in his Third Treatise on the Divine Images. “For is now clear that you cannot depict the invisible God.”

But, he adds, “[w]hen you see the bodiless become human for your sake, then you may accomplish the figure of a human form; when the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen. . . .” Pointing to the saving deeds of the Incarnate Son, he says, “Depict all these in words and in colors. . .” (8).

People have not only seen God, but we will one day see him again. In the meantime, we remember his earthly ministry and eternal rule by reflecting upon Scripture, singing hymns, and beholding and venerating icons.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail Hyatt

    Excellent.

    If I had been able to follow Jesus during his 30 years on this earth, which moments would I have captured on Instagram? Humm. I would have loved to have walked and talked with him down a road. I could see myself tagging along while he was with the disciples. I would have asked him to stop and go stand under a big tree while I snapped a picture. (Probably would take a group picture with all the guys, then one with all the women disciples.) I would have loved to sit at his feet during his sermon on the mount snapping pictures and taking notes in my Moleskine.

    • Joel J. Miller

      It is exciting to imagine that. It puts us back in the Garden walking with God.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Nice post. I would appreciate it more if I knew what instagram was. (man, does that make me sound old)

    • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail Hyatt

      Really?

      • kevin kirkpatrick

        I have never instagramed. All I know about it I have learned from reading this post. If I tried to keep up with all formed of social media, I wouldn’t do anything else! Reading blogs (Joels and mikes mostly) along with FB is all I do. Do I need to use instagram?

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Also Gail, you would not have needed your Moleskine. The aural memory of ancient people (or us today if we used it) was simply amazing. The accuracy of the dead sea scrolls proved that the oral tradition of the OT was passed on down, by memory, almost perfectly. As was the sermon on the mount. It is possible that someone was there recording it, but I think it is more likely someone there learned it word for word, even after just one hearing. Jews today have whole tomes of the Talmud memorized, ancient Rhapsodes would memorize the entire Iliad and recite it for entertainment, and Irish Bards would do the same with their epic poems. The sermon on the mount is a drop in the bucket….The printed word has made us moderns underdevelop this ability. I am still glad I can read though.

  • http://www.missionsmusings.com/ Susie Finney

    Good one. I’ve been exploring Orthodoxy for a while now, and I’m only now feeling like I’m starting to kind of “get” icons.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Icons were foreign to me at first as well. In time they’ve become quite dear to me. Sometimes when I’m in a Protestant church I look at the empty walls and think, “Where are my friends?” Icons are a wonderful reminder of the truth of Hebrews, that we live amid a great cloud of witnesses.

      • http://www.missionsmusings.com/ Susie Finney

        But you can’t miss what you’ve never experienced. I grew up Protestant, and have been really struck by the richness I see in Orthodoxy. It really gives a different perspective on the world.

        • Joel J. Miller

          I would encourage you to keep exploring. You are right about the richness found there.


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