The central message of the Bible is that we are justified by faith in our invisible God (cf. Rom. 1:16f.). Since Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that we walk by faith and not by sight, it is scarcely surprising that faith pervades almost the entire Bible (cf. Heb. 11). Paul’s comment is clearly grounded in Scripture, and it is worth tracking its progress.
We start by acknowledging that God who is spirit (John 4:24, cf. Gen. 1:2) is physically invisible to us, his physical creatures. As Paul teaches later (1 Cor. 2:14) spiritual things are spiritually discerned. So far as creation is concerned, we believe that it was God who brought it into being by his power and wisdom (Isa. 48:13; Rom. 1:20; Heb. 11:3). While Adam and Eve hear God in the Garden (cf. Heb. 12:19), they do not see him (cf. John 3:8). In fact he contrasts sharply with the visible material idols of the heathen (Isa. 44, etc.). Whenever God reveals himself in the OT there is no hint that he is ever seen even though Moses is said to talk with him face to face. Clearly the latter phrase expresses spiritual intimacy and must be regarded as figurative especially in view of the fact that God refused to allow his servant to see his glory (Ex. 33:18-23), not least because he was a consuming fire (Dt. 4:24). Furthermore, the author of Hebrews tells us that Moses left Egypt by faith and persevered as though he saw him who was invisible (Heb. 11:27).
As has just been intimated, the invisibility of our Creator God stands in strong contrast with the visibility of the man-made idols of the heathen for whom seeing is believing. The prophets harped on the fact that the gods of the Gentiles were manufactured or “made by hand” (cheiropoietos) and to that extent material or physical (Isa. 2:8; 17:8; 44; Jer. 10). As the Psalmist has it, in contrast with the true God who is in the heavens (cf. Ps. 96:5), the idols of the heathen “are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:4-8). The basic materialism or naturalism of this passage is manifest. And even today despite our so-called sophistication there remains a primitive urge to worship visible material things and in effect to deify the material creation (cf. modern naturalistic evolutionism). Isaiah and Jeremiah go to some length to ridicule gods that are made of wood or stone (Isa. 2:8; 44:9-20; Jer. 10:1-16, cf. 1 Kings 18:27). Though they could be seen, they were dumb, immobile and had to be carried.
The True God
In contrast, the true God was the Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and the earth (Ps. 96:5; Jon. 1:9). At the exodus he had acted on behalf of his believing people and had himself carried them on eagle’s wings (Ex. 19:4, cf. Isa. 46:3). Not surprisingly they were forbidden to make any idol of him after the fashion of anything created (Ex. 20:4; Dt. 4:15-19; 17:3, cf. Ps. 106:20; Rom. 1:23). The distinction between the invisible Creator and his visible creation was fundamental and provided the basis for the earth/heaven, flesh/spirit dualism that pervades Scripture. While God invisibly ruled history and his people’s destiny, he revealed himself in various spiritual ways through his servants the prophets (cf. Heb. 1:1). Thus his word or promise of salvation stood in strong contrast with what he had made (Is. 40:6-8; 51:6,8; Mt. 4:3f.; 24:35; 1 Pet. 1:23-25, etc.).
Natural or Physical Inability
In the NT man’s natural inability to see God is underlined first by John who tells us in 1:18 that no one has ever seen God despite the fact that his glory, if not his majesty, was manifest in Christ (John 1:14; 14:8-11). Paul gives us some indication of the reason for this when he refers to the King of the ages who is incorruptible (Gk.), invisible (1 Tim. 1:17), immortal and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). In Romans 1:23 he sets in contrast corruptible man and his incorruptible God. Then in 2:7 (cf. v.10) he endorses God’s original promise to Adam (Gen. 2:17, cf. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:5f.; Heb. 2:6-8) that by persistence in doing good mankind will gain glory, honour and incorruptibility but clearly not in visible, material flesh (cf. Rom. 8:18-25). For while the body may be redeemed (Rom. 8:23), not so the flesh which undergoes corruption at death (Gal. 6:8) or transformation replacement (1 Cor. 15:51f.). This is why it is absolutely necessary to be born again spiritually (John 3:1-8). And it is only when both immortality and incorruptibility are attained that man will be enabled to see God (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). In the meantime so long as they are in the (fleshly, natural) body, believers will be away from the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6,8) and hence incapable of seeing him (2 Cor. 4:18) except by faith. However, by pursuing the path to perfection in the power of the Spirit they may be increasingly transformed from one degree of glory to another into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29). The upshot of this will be the beatific vision; they will eventually enter the very presence of God, see his face in Christ (Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 22:4) and be generically as he is (1 John 3:2; Phil. 3:21; Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet. 4:6; 2 Pet. 1:4). When this occurs there will be no more night for God himself will be their light.
The fact that we are justified by faith based on God’s promises means that the invisibility of God and of spiritual things to the natural man, especially to disbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4), is basic to the Bible. It is only by faith that the invisible becomes visible or is spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). For the world of which Ishmael and Esau are representative a bird in the hand is always worth two in the bush and seeing is believing. They belong by choice to this world (cf. John 17: 14) and have their portion in it (Ps. 17:14; Gal. 4:30; Heb. 12:16). On the other hand, for the believer the blessings of the future are not empty pie in the sky but eternal realities which will eventually be attained. Their hope is for what is presently invisible glory (Rom. 8:24f.; 1 Cor. 2:9; Col. 1:27). This is illustrated supremely by the story of Abraham who rejoiced that he would see Christ’s day (John 8:56).
The Faith of Abraham
The promises God made to Abraham were unseen and intangible. Abraham and many like him in the history of salvation were far off or remote from their reality and ultimate realization (cf. children, Acts 2:39). They remained strangers and exiles (Heb. 11:13) like the heathen they were (Eph. 2:19). Even Moses who endured as seeing the invisible God (Heb. 11:27) was only permitted to see the Promised Land at a distance. And it was Caleb and Joshua who of all the unbelieving generation that left Egypt who continued to believe in what remained until towards the end of the pilgrimage an unseen reality. They alone were eventually enabled to see its temporary fulfilment. As Lane expresses the issue, “Faith brings into the present the reality of that which is future, unseen, or heavenly” (WBC Hebrews, 1-8, p.99). On this assumption, OT believers, who in the nature of the case inherited the promise only partially (Heb. 6:14f., cf. 1 Cor. 13:9-12), will eventually receive its complete eschatological fulfilment along with those granted a greater revelation (Heb. 11:39f., cf. 12:22-24). As Paul makes clear in Galatians 3 (see espec. vv.14,29) Abraham and all his spiritual children are to be considered as one (cf. Eph. 3:6). Thus we cannot but conclude in the words of Article VII of the Church of England that “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for in both the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did only look for transitory promises” (Australian Prayer Book, p.628). Truly as Jesus said to Thomas who, among others (cf. Acts 10:41), was privileged to see him in his (uncorrupted) flesh as risen from the grave, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, cf. 17:20; 1 Pet. 1:8f.).
It is highly significant that Jesus pictures Abraham and all his spiritual progeny (Gal. 3:29) sitting at table in the kingdom of God (Mt. 8:11). And it is only in that spiritual kingdom that invisibility will give way to sight (Rev. 22:4; 2 Cor. 5:8).
Additional Note (1)
It may be countered that the last comment is false since the book of Revelation clearly teaches that every eye will see Jesus when he returns (1:7, cf. Acts 1:11; Tit. 2:13). In reply it must be said, first, that Paul’s comment regarding faith is general; he is not thinking specifically of those who are alive at end of the age. Second, when Jesus comes again in the glory of the Father (Mt. 16:27; Luke 9:26, etc.), in accordance with teaching as old as Genesis (e.g. 16:13; 32:30, cf. Ex. 33:17-23), his visibility will result in death for the wicked and change for those who are eagerly awaiting him in faith (1 Cor. 15:51). In other words, Jesus will not, as some erroneously teach, return to earth in material flesh, from which he necessarily underwent change at his ascension (1 Cor. 15:50ff., cf. John 17:5,24), but as a consuming fire (2 Thes. 1:7f.; 2:8; Heb. 12:25-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12).
In case the point has been missed, it needs finally to be noted that visibility in Scripture is always correlated with the physical/material; invisibility with the spiritual (Rom. 1:20; 2 Cor. 4:18; 5:7; Rom. 8:24f.; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; Heb. 11:1,3). This underscores man’s dualistic flesh/spirit nature irrespective of sin (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10-16). Though like the animals in that he also derives from the earth (cf. Ps. 49:12,20; Gen. 2:7), man alone is made in the image of God. And it is in that image fully realized in its conformity to the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18, cf. Phil. 3:21) that he will see God (Rev. 22:4). (Cf. Baldwyn in comment on Daniel 7:13: “The beasts turn out to be representative of certain human beings; the one who comes with the clouds is like a human being in the sense that He is what every human being should be if he is true to type, that is, one who is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26,27)” (p.143).
Additional Note (2)
Writing in Covenant Theology ed. Cartledge and Mills, Carlisle 2001, p.42, James Dunn makes an important point regarding the visibility of the law. Referring to 2 Corinthians 3, etc., he says, “The point is that gramma denotes the visible letter on the page or scroll, the law as written, visible to sight in the written letter. If the law is being summed up in this ‘letter’, then it is the law reduced to the letter, the visible regulation, the outward act of compliance, circumcision in the flesh. Paul makes the point explicitly in Romans 2:28-9:
For the true Jew is not the one visibly marked as such, nor circumcision that which is performed visibly in the flesh, but one who is so in a hidden way, and circumcision is of the heart, in Spirit not in letter [gramma]. (author’s translation)
Hence also Paul’s claim that Christians experience the inward reality of the Spirit, which is the antithesis of the gramma: ‘we are slaves not under the old written code [gramma] but in the new life of the Spirit’ (Rom. 7:6); ‘ministers of a new covenant, not of letter [gramma] but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6).”
Needless to say, while Dunn’s remarks hardly harmonize with his thesis regarding the unity of the covenant, they certainly do with new covenant sealing which is spiritual and therefore physically invisible (cf. John 6:27; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; Rev. 7:3).
Prompted by Dunn’s comments on Romans 2:28f., (1* In his commentary, p.124, Dunn highlights the contrast between the open (visible), the flesh and the letter on the one hand and the hidden (invisible), the heart and the spirit on the other.) we can hardly fail to note the correspondence between the invisibility of new covenant circumcision and its being “not made by hand” (acheiropoietos) in Colossians 2:11 (cf. Phil. 3:3 and Eph. 2:11). Again we are forced to the conclusion that the physical/material which is “made by hand” (Ps. 102:25; Isa. 48:13; 64:8, etc.) is ephemeral while the spiritual is permanent. (Note further the visible cheirographon or handwriting of Col. 2:14. On handwork in general, see my Manufactured Or Not So) This inference is explicitly affirmed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:18 supported by Romans 8:20,24f. (cf. 1 Pet. 3:4; 1 John 2:17).
Commenting on 1 Corinthians 7:31 Fee draws attention to the impermanent nature of visible features of this age and alludes to 1:28; 2:6; 6:13; 13:8-11; 15:24-26 (pp. 83, 342). References like Isaiah 51:6; 54:10; Matthew 6:19-21, Luke 12:33, 16:9, 17:22-37 and Hebrews 1:10-12 point in the same direction. Needless to add, our immortal, incorruptible God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; Rom. 1:20,23, etc.) and contrasts strongly with ‘hand-made’ gods (2 K. 19:18; 2 Chr. 32:19).
Additional Note (3)
Hebrews 12:18-21, in contrast with 12:22-24 which relate to the perfection of the heavenly realm, emphasize the visibility, tangibility and audibility associated with the old covenant. The same three characteristics re-appear in 1 John 1:1-3 where the truth of the incarnation is stressed. It might be added as Stott, for example, suggests (p.60) that the particular time hinted at by John is the post-resurrection period of Jesus’ sojourn on earth (see e.g. Luke 24:39; John 20:26-29, etc.). If this is so, then it clearly undermines the widespread idea that Jesus was glorified at his resurrection from the dead.
Joyce G.Baldwyn, Daniel, Leicester, 1978.
J.D.G.Dunn, Romans 1-8, Dallas, 1888.
G.D.Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, 1987.
J.R.W.Stott, The Epistles of John, London, 1964.
(On aphthartos see the references in Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon, p.109.
Note de Silva, p.387: “Significantly, 11:3 affirms the ultimate dependence of the visible on the invisible. Cf. p.103,409,453 n