By Dr. Michael A. Milton, Crosswalk.com
Children have a way of posing simple questions that require a straightforward answer. Every writer knows that the process of saying big ideas in brief, plain language is an extraordinary undertaking. For instance, who among us does not heard a little child ask a Sunday school teacher, or her father, “What does God look like?” We might be tempted to answer, “honey, I just don’t know.” And that would be a pretty honest response. But the child deserves to know the full truth.
Now, to begin with, let us make sure that we go to the holy Scriptures as the ground and the authority of anything that we will say about God and his revelation of himself to his creation. The Westminster shorter catechism, which was prepared for children to learn the truths of Holy Scripture, provide us with a brief summary of what the Bible says about what God looks like (as well as answering other questions about God). Let us look at the question and the answer and note well the scriptural references that support the answer:
Scriptures from the Westminster Shorter Catechism about God's Character
Q. 4. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit [a], infinite [b], eternal [c], and unchangeable [d] in his being [e], wisdom [f], power [g], holiness [h], justice [i], goodness [j], and truth [k].
[a]. Deut. 4:15-19; Luke 24:39; John 1:18; 4:24; Acts 17:29
[b]. 1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7-10; 145:3; 147:5; Jer. 23:24; Rom. 11:33-36
[c]. Deut. 33:27; Ps. 90:2; 102:12, 24-27; Rev. 1:4,8
[d]. Ps. 33:11; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 1:12; 6:17-18; 13:8; Jas. 1:17
[e]. Ex. 3:14; Ps. 115:2-3; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16
[f]. Ps. 104:24; Rom. 11:33-34; Heb. 4:13; 1 John 3:20
[g]. Gen. 17:1; Ps. 62:11; Jer. 32:17; Mat. 19:26; Rev. 1:8
[h]. Heb. 1:13; I Pet. 1:15-16; 1 John 3:3, 5; Rev. 15:4
[i]. Gen. 18:25; Ex. 34:6-7; Deut. 32:4; Ps. 96:13; Rom. 3:5, 26
[j]. Ps. 103:5; 107:8; Matt. 19:17; Rom. 2:4
[k]. Ex. 34:6; Deut. 32:4; Ps. 86:15; 117:2; Heb. 6:18
Q. 6. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost [a]; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. [b]
[a]. Matt. 3:16-17; 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:2
[b]. Ps. 45:6; John 1:1; 17:5; Acts 5:3-4; Rom. 9:5; Col. 2:9; Jude 24-25
Q. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ [a], who, being the eternal Son of God [b], became man [c] and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever [d].
[a]. John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5-6
[b]. Ps. 2:7; Matt. 3:17; 17:5; John 1:18
[c]. Isa. 9:6; Matt. 1:23; John 1:14; Gal. 4:4
[d]. Acts 1:11; Heb. 7:24-25
Q. 22. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
A. Christ, the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul [a], being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her [b] yet without sin [c].
[a]. Phil. 2:7; Heb. 2:14, 17
[b]. Luke 1:27, 31, 35
[c]. 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 John 3:5
Now, I admit that is a significant gathering of Scripture. But I think you will see that the genius of a confessional Christianity is that we can stand on the shoulders of giants who have asked the question and answered it, through years of study and amidst a plurality of ministers and scholars, and even different branches of the Christian faith. From this compendium of Scripture, we can answer the question about what God looks like with three powerful principles.
Here are 3 Principles from the Bible that Show Us What God Looks Like:
1. God Is a Spirit and Does Not Have a Body Like Man
The pagan nations surrounding ancient Israel were in a primitive darkness, still lost and living “East of Eden.” The ramifications of the fall of mankind were far-reaching and included a “noetic effect of sin.” That is, not only was the ground infested with thorns, but the mind of man was infected by sin. Thus, without the revelation of God, mankind all over the world began to worship idols that were made by their own hand. Or, they would worship things in creation — “nature,” as we often call it — to explain to themselves the magnificent display of powerful forces all around.
There was a moon god, a sun deity, and certain trees were worshiped as gods of fertility. We recall the striking observation of John Calvin who said that our minds are a veritable idol factory. In the midst of this cauldron of image-making mania, ancient Israel was chosen to bring the message of God and his Redeemer to the ends of the earth. And so God revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God codified his revelation of how we are to relate to God and to each other in the Decalogue, i.e., the Ten Commandments. Almighty God made a covenant with Abraham to bring forth the Messiah who would be a blessing to every creature on the face of the earth. And part of Israel’s treasury of divine knowledge was that God is Spirit. He did not have a body like men. He forbade human beings from creating idols or ascribing divine attributes to inanimate objects or to human beings. God does not share his glory. He alone is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth.
However, that is not the end of God’s revelation to humankind. For in God’s promise, the Messiah would come forth in God’s revelation in a new way. And that is our next principle.
2. God Became Human without Ever Ceasing to Be Divine
We call this incarnation. Incarnation is the glorious act of Almighty God whereby he took upon the image of man without ever ceasing to be God. He came to us through the virgin birth. He was vulnerable as a little baby in a feed trough. He was given an earthly father, Joseph, who was called by God to protect Jesus. But our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of a craftsman from Nazareth, adopted into the lion of Judah, according to the patriarchal lineage of Israel designed by God, demonstrated that he was always the Almighty. Jesus even said you want to see the father, then just look at me. So we see the Lord Jesus healing, walking on the water, being crucified, raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and in all of these things we observe the divine nature of God at work in Christ. It was St. Paul who guided us in our understanding about the image of God:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell” (Colossians 1:15-19 NKJV).
The teaching of St. Paul systematized the revelation of God in Christ and of the ministry of Jesus in his time on earth. A distinct and undeniable component of this system of Revelation is that Jesus Christ is the image of the Godhead. So, in childlike words to answer the childlike question, we must say, “if you want to see God, you must look to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This answer might engender a second question, “Well, if that is so, then what did Jesus look like?” Mercifully, and in the wisdom of Almighty God, the Bible did not provide a description of Jesus’ physical features. Though there have been artistic renderings of this man who came from the line of David, who came from north of Jerusalem, who was of the Semitic race, i.e., ethnic group, we do not know precisely what Jesus looked like. It is a sad commentary on the souls of unregenerate men that the very first depiction we have of Jesus is a first-century Roman graffiti sketch of a man on a cross with the head of a donkey. The anonymous artist, presumably mocking a fellow Imperial soldier, entitled his work, “"Alexamenos worships [his] God.” The linear figure has hooves for feet. Another figure, apparently a believer, is worshiping the image. No less than Tertullian (160-240), the famous church father, wrote about Roman officials and common people denigrating the person of Jesus and dehumanizing the disciples of Jesus with this graffiti art, which must have been very popular for the church father to mention it. Tertullian wrote, “He [Jesus on the cross, depicted in the graffiti] has the ears of an ass and a hoofed foot, carries a book, and is dressed in a toga.” I must admit that as I write this my soul is deeply moved by Tertullian’s words. Will men forever stand at the cross and mock our dear Savior? Oh, we must love Him. He is not the ass of Roman graffiti. Jesus is the Lamb of God.
After this mocking caricature, Jesus is depicted by believers in several narratives from Scripture. He is drawn as the Good Shepherd, as an infant when the Magi visited, and in the healing of a paralytic. Kings and noblemen, wealthy merchants and their wives, were routinely described by the physical features. Jesus is only described by what He did for us: He lived the life we could not live, and He died a sinner’s death so we could be forgiven. Isaiah described Him:
“Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:1-4 NKJV).
So, the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the one true God, cloaks the physical features of Jesus, and thus of Almighty God incarnate. Did Jesus look like His forefather, David?
“So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with bright eyes, and good-looking. And the Lord said, ‘Arise, anoint him; for this is the one’” (1 Samuel 16:12).
Maybe. We don’t know. Jesus received His necessary covenantal relationship to David through adoption into Joseph’s line. But whatever the physical attributes of Jesus, this we know: we know He lived, He died, He rose again, He ascended, and He is coming again. Any talk about “what God looks like” must give attention to the heresy called Docetism. Docetismarose in the Church while the Apostle John was still alive and writing. The Greek, Dokeo, means, “appears,” or “likeness.” Although, “the origins of Docetism remain obscure,” Gnostic leaders were advocating that Jesus only “seemed” to be human. Because they felt that material matter was evil, they insisted that Jesus could not be God in the flesh. He only appeared to be human. Such an idea was soundly refuted by the Apostle John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,14 NASB).
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (1 John 4:2-3 NASB).
What does God look like? Look to Jesus to find your answer.
3. God in Christ looks like you. Better put, you look like Him.
The Apostle John gives us our biblical summary of the matter: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18 NASB).
Yet, as we have seen in our study, we are not granted a detailed description of our Lord Jesus. In hiding the Lord’s features, however, He is more accessible to you and me. Just as He was born in a manger, where both shepherds and aristocracy were able to approach Him, He is also presented to you in Scripture so that all can come. We are made in the image of God. The “image of God,” the imago Dei, is in you. And the differential between you and all of the other living things in Creation is that you have the ability to communicate with God.1
God has come to you in His eternal Son, Jesus. Jesus is the full expression of the Triune God. If you want to see God, look to Jesus. He did not leave a sketch, a painting, or a literary description of His physical features. He left His Word and His Spirit to speak to that deepest part of your life. He is available to you. Come to Him now. And as you repent and trust in Christ alone as the resurrected and living God, you will no doubt say with the Psalmist:
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord …” (Psalm 27:4 ESV).
What does God look like? Perhaps, following the psalmist, we turn to poetry and hymnody to answer. When you know your sins are forgiven, and the God of all Creation is your own Father, God looks like the One you have been desiring all of your life. Then, as you receive Him by faith, you sing with successive generations of Christians,
Fairest Lord Jesus,
Ruler of all nature,
O thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish,
Thee will I honor,
thou, my soul's glory, joy, and crown.
Lord of all the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor,
now and forevermore be thine.
1. See, e.g., Karl Barth, G. W. Bromiley, and T. F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics (London: T. & T. Clark International, 2004), 186. “Men are simply male and female. Whatever else they may be, it is only in this differentiation and relationship. This is the particular dignity ascribed to the sex relationship. It is wholly creaturely, and common to man and beast. But as the only real principle of differentiation and relationship, as the original form not only of man’s confrontation of God but also of all intercourse between man and man, it is the true humanum and therefore the true creaturely image of God.”
Barth, Karl, G. W. Bromiley, and T. F. Torrance. Church Dogmatics. London: T. & T. Clark International, 2004.
Goldstein, Ronnie, and Guy G Stroumsa. “The Greek and Jewish Origins of Docetism: A New Proposal.” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum 10, no. 3 (2007): 423–441. Accessed August 24, 2019.
MacDonald, James M. Life and Writings of St. John ... New York: Scribners, 1880.
Niang, A. C., and C. Osiek. Text, Image, and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World: A Festschrift in Honor of David Lee Balch. Pickwick Publications, 2011.
Slick, Matt. “Docetism|What Is Docetism?”
Solin, Heikki, Marja Itkonen-Kaila, and Veikko Väänänen. Graffiti Del Palatino: Paedagogium. Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 1966.
Taylor, Joan E. What Did Jesus Look Like? Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 2019.
Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, A.D. 236 : The Encyclical Epistle of the Church of Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp.Willits, Calif.: Eastern Orthodox Books, 1980.
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