Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"No One Has Ever Seen God": Thinking About John 1:18 (Part 1)

Question: What is John talking about in John 1:18? How can he say that no one has seen God, but evangelicals claim that Jesus is God? 

TWH: That's a great question. The Gospel of John begins with a prologue (John 1:1-18). Most of us are familiar with the introduction to that prologue (John 1:1-3), especially the first verse: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). The beginning of this prologue has been one of the most vastly discussed passages in the New Testament. Unfortunately, the same amount of attention has not really been given to its conclusion. I'm specifically referring to the last verse of the prologue, John 1:18: "No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him." That's a really curious statement. What in the world is John trying to say with that first part especially?

It wasn't really until the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that the Church articulated the relationship of the Father and the Son. This isn't to say that the New Testament, written well before that council, left such matters entirely undeveloped or untreated. In fact, Jesus dealt with his relationship to the Father throughout his ministry. He taught his disciples about who the Father is, and he showed the disciples who the Father is. Think about this one passage in John for example:
"Philip said to him, 'Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.' Jesus said to him, 'Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (John 14:8-9). 
Or what about John 10:30: "I and the Father are one." Passages like those, and many others, without a doubt serve as the foundation for those councils that followed in the history of the church. Talking about the Trinity is as difficult today as it was in the first few hundred years of the church. No one can claim to understand fully what this relationship is between the members of the Trinity, and how at the same time God is one. One God manifest in three persons.

Nevertheless, there is much we can glean from the texts of both the Old and the New Testaments. John 1:18 is not an isolated text. The Bible has much to say about what John is talking about there in his prologue. The teaching we find there is found throughout the Old Testament. It spans the writings of John. It is found throughout Jesus' teaching, not just in the Gospel of John, but also the Synoptics. And we even find it in the writings of Paul directly and Peter, for example, indirectly. So, let's keep thinking about this a little bit. We'll sort of take some baby steps as we move forward.

What exactly is being communicated with John 1:1? We have three declarations about the identity of Jesus Christ and his relationship to the Godhead. First, we read that the Word was in the beginning (John 1:1a). That is an attestation to the preexistence of Jesus. Second, we read that the Word was with God (John 1:1b). That's an interesting statement, one that is directly connected to John 1:18. We see throughout the Gospel of John that references to "God" are connected in proximity to references to the "Father." In John 1:1b, we have that first declaration of the Son's relationship to the Father. Third, we have a declaration of the nature of the Son; he is God (John 1:1c). That's what the opening of John's Gospel is getting at. It addresses the preexistence of Jesus, his relationship to the Father, and his very nature as God.

But it's that second point in John 1:1b that causes us to think in relationship to John 1:18. When John says that no one has seen God, he is referring to the no one having seen the Father. That much is clear simply from the context, in my opinion. The rest of John 1:18 reads, "The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him (i.e., the Father)." We are specifically talking about the relationship of the Son to the Father here. So that's how we can be confident that what John is talking about in John 1:18a ("no one has ever seen God") is a declaration about the Father.

We can see this taught in other places in the New Testament as I mentioned. Let me just give you few places where it is covered.
1. John 6:41-47. Jesus specifically says in John 6:46 that no one has seen the Father. This is a close parallel to what we find in John 1:18. "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father" (John 6:46). 
2. 1 John 4:12. John again reiterates the point about no one having seen God. Here there is almost exact lexical agreement, just the lexeme for "see" is different. The context is certainly different. Believers should love one another. When they do, the Father, who no one has ever seen, becomes manifest. We put him on display by loving others, and thus magnify one of the Father's greatest attributes–his love. Remember it was his love for the world that made him send the Son into the world. 
3. 1 Tim. 6:13-16. Paul charges Timothy in the presence of two witnesses, a very typical Jewish custom. "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus." The New Testament is crystal clear that Jesus is also God (cf. John 1:1c). So, what exactly is going on here in this verse? Well, the first witness is God . . . the Father, the second is God . . . the Son. Paul offers some secondary information about each of those witnesses, first concerning the Son before returning to add some details about the Father. Of the Son Paul says he is the one "who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate" (1 Tim. 6:13). Of the Father Paul says he is the one who "will bring about [the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ] at the proper time" (1 Tim. 6:15). He then adds this referring to the Father: "He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see" (1 Tim. 6:15-16). The Father has not been seen and cannot be seen, at least right now.
That's a lot to soak in right now. We'll come back to this in Part 2 and I'll offer a few more thoughts regarding this issue, especially as it relates to the Old Testament.

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