The most unique and radical claim of the Christian Faith is not that God has revealed himself, but that he has done so by becoming a human being.
The incarnation is the most central truth of the Christian Faith. The eternal Son of God took up human flesh and became ‘like his brothers in every respect’ not only to ‘make propitiation for the sins of his people’ (Hebrews 2:17) but also to reveal the very being of the triune God to humankind.
The Bible everywhere speaks of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son now incarnate, as the supreme revelation of God. Thus, the author of Hebrews could write: ‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, who he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Hebrews continues to proclaim the Son as the ‘radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3). Paul, writing to the Christians at Colossae, could declare that the incarnate Son is ‘the image (Greek: ikon) of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). And in John 14:9, Jesus claimed that ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.
In the person of Jesus Christ, the event of God’s self-disclosure occurs fully and supremely. In the life, speech and acts of Jesus are revealed the very character and purposes of God. As Millard Erickson has clearly put it: ‘The pinnacle of God’s acts is to be found in the life of Jesus. His miracles, death and resurrection are redemptive history in its most condensed and concentrated form’.
Only the second person of the triune Godhead, who is with God and is God from all eternity, can reveal God to us. Thus, the consensus of the Patristic theologians that can be traced to Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 125-202): that God can only be known through God.
To be sure, God’s revelation of himself in Christ comes in a mediated form, through the humanity of the incarnate Son. It is important to note that God has not revealed himself in humanity per se, but through the humanity united to Christ, the divine Son (Latin: humanitas Christi). In the incarnation, God has revealed himself through a medium that is not alien to us.
The Reformers recognise that in order for God to reveal himself to human beings he must in some ways accommodate or condescend himself to the ways of human knowing. According to a number of Reformed theologians like David Wright, Timothy George and Edward Dowey, the incarnation is God’s accommodating act par excellence.
But it was the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who articulated this with great insight and eloquence. In a 1966 essay entitled ‘The Theology of the Symbol’ Rahner writes: ‘The Logos, the Son of the Father, is truly, in his humanity as such, the revelatory symbol in which the Father enunciates himself, in this Son, to the world – revelatory, because the symbol renders present what is revealed’.
Using different terminology, the Reformed theologian Karl Barth makes the same point when he maintains that the incarnate Christ is the ‘sacramental reality of [God’s] revelation’, the ‘first sacrament, the foundation of everything that God instituted and used in his revelation as a secondary objectivity before and after the epiphany of Jesus Christ’.
To say that God’s self-disclosure is found supremely in Christ is not to deny his universal revelation in creation. Paul is unequivocal that God has revealed himself in the created order when he writes that the ‘invisible nature’ of the Creator is clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1:20).
Neither does it diminish the way in which God revealed himself in his dealings with Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.
In fact, if Christ is indeed the supreme revelation of God, then in him all the other moments of God’s self-disclosure becomes clearer and more comprehensible. In him all the manifestations of God – past, present and future – are clarified. And in him God’s dealings with Israel becomes more understandable and meaningful.
Christ is the summit of God’s revelation.
It is precisely because in him is to be found ‘all the riches of full assurance of understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery’ (Colossians2: 2-3) that Christ can be said to be the ‘exegesis of God’ (Hans Urs von Balthasar).
In the incarnation of the Son, we also see the profound relationship between revelation and salvation. Insofar as the second person of the Godhead is Word, his incarnation is the revelation of God. But even as he comes as Word to reveal the love of God, he also comes as Son to reconcile us to the Father.
In Jesus Christ we not only come to know God, but we are also brought into communion with him by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
The great Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance explains:
‘In this act of condescension God comes as God the Son and God the Word. He comes as God the Son to enter our rebellious estate in order to effect reconciliation by living out his life of filial obedience where we are disobedient, and he comes as God the Word to enter into our darkness and blindness in order to effect revelation by manifesting the love of God and by achieving from within humanity faithful appropriation of divine revelation’.
Insofar as these are the works of the incarnate Son of God, they must be seen not as two acts but as one act: revelation is part of reconciliation, and reconciliation is part of revelation.
In Jesus Christ is revealed the loving God who saves human beings from sin and death. Thus, we could indeed say (together with Paul) that in the face of Jesus Christ we see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).