Jewish acquaintances have told me they have a “special relationship” with God, by which they mainly appear to mean a corporate relationship going back to Sinai that they experience today through their worship and traditions, lived out in their local congregations. My post today is written between Hanukkah and Christmas, and the eight days just gone by indeed celebrate God’s corporate deliverance and preservation of the Jewish people. But Jews are not entirely without a desire for a more personal way of relating to God of the sort evangelical Christians typically testify to having. Commenting on Abraham’s faith at Genesis 15.6, the Jewish Study Bible says, “In the Tanakh, faith…means trusting profoundly in a person, in this case the personal God…”
That beautiful statement immediately concerned Abraham, and begs the question, exactly how did Abraham experience God “profoundly” as “a person”? Did he read about Him somewhere in a book, or hear a lecture about Him? No, Abraham actually saw God, and interacted with Him as two human acquaintances will do. He met “the LORD” in Genesis 18, talked with Him, and even prepared Him a meal.
Such personal experience of God was far from unique to Abraham. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with either a “man” or “God,” the Jewish Study Bible saying that “in the Tanakh, God and angels can appear in human form.” This encounter not only gave birth to the name of Israel (from his wrestling with God) but was so vividly personal for Jacob that he would not let go without God’s blessing. Later (48.16) he referred to the “Angel” of the LORD as having “redeemed” him, and he carried in his body a battle wound from that night all his days, constantly reminding him of the palpable physicality of his encounter with the Divine.
Moses had a long-term personal relationship with God. His seeing God’s “back” is well known, but in Exodus 24, God appeared to him and his seventy elders on Mount Sinai—they “saw the God of Israel” (NJPS and ArtScroll). Chapter 33 says God spoke to Moses “face to face.” Later, Gideon saw “the Angel of the LORD” in Judges 6, but in verses 14 and 16 the text explicitly says it was “the LORD” speaking to him. Isaiah’s chapter 6 encounter with God was intensely personal—his individual lips touched by the cherub’s coal, his individual sins discerned and pardoned, his individual call received to serve personally the living God whom He saw and heard. “For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
God revealed Himself in various ways in Bible times—in voices, dreams, and visions, as well as these theophanic manifestations—but can anyone think Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, or Isaiah could be said to have have trusted God “profoundly” as “a person” (in the study Bible’s words) without these most direct encounters? The invisible, ineffable God seems on these occasions to have made Himself known as “God,” yet simultaneously distinguished from Him as a man or angel. The Targums (the ancient Aramaic translations of the Bible) referred to these God-yet-distinguished-from-Him manifestations as the Word (Memra) of God, and a section discussing them in the Jewish Encyclopedia is entitled, “Personification of the Word” (http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10618-memra.)
The “Personification of the Word” is what Christmas is all about. God’s pre-existing Word (Greek: Logos, corresponding to the Aramaic Memra) was the eternal Second Person of the Godhead—fully God, yet somehow distinguished from Him (i.e., from God the Father) within the mystery of the Trinity. Everything we experience as having “appearance” or “being” in the physical creation emerges from that distinction. John’s Gospel begins, “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…” (John 1:1,14). When Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, and Isaiah saw manifestations of God as men or angels, they were seeing the same pre-Incarnate “Word,” or Jesus, who came to earth at the first Christmas through the exchange of His full heavenly glory for a true, fully mortal human body—as the God-man who could be touched and felt, and who could knowingly sympathize with our human struggles. Only such a God-man could actually do for humankind, as God and man, what we most need.
The prophet Ezekiel’s testimony agrees with this. In his first chapter he says “the word of the LORD came expressly to [him]…I looked, and behold,” he saw “the appearance of the likeness of of the glory of the LORD” manifested in “the appearance of a man” on a throne, high up above the mysterious chariot. “When I saw it,” Ezekiel continues, “I fell on my face,” just as frightened as Isaiah was, and heard the voice of God speaking to him. Toward the end of his book, Ezekiel fell on his face again upon seeing this same manifestation of God enter the visionary Temple from the east (Ezek. 43.1-3), with the earth shining and His voice sounding like the roar of many waters—or, as the Aramaic Targum says, “the sound of the camp of the angels on high.” Then God’s Presence entered the Temple’s east gate and moved westward into its inner court, filling the Temple (v.5), in order to “dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever” (v.7).
This is the same thing the New Testament describes in the coming of Jesus, the “Personification of the Word” in human flesh, to the awaiting Temple of His earthly Kingdom. He came from the east, heralded by the “Dayspring” on high and the westward-leading star that led the Magi to worship Him. The “glory of the Lord shone around” the terrified shepherds (Luke 2:9) as they heard the “heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest’” (v.9). Representing a dwindling generation of Israelites who still sought the Messiah, Simeon saw baby Jesus brought into Herod’s Temple and could now die in peace, having seen at last the arrival there of the long prophesied “light to bring revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel” (v.32). John’s “Word” who was with God, and was God had now come to dwell in the midst of His people forever (John 1:14. Matt. 28:20).
You can read more about what Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, came to do in His Temple to redeem fallen humankind from its plagues of sin, guilt, and brokenness—restoring an intimate personal fellowship with God known only in brief glimpses since our expulsion from Eden—in my book, Ezekiel’s Temple: A Scriptural Framework Illustrating the Covenant of Grace and in Parts 1, 2, and 4 of my “Christian midrash” that can be read online or downloaded from the Free Articles page.
Christmas is a glorious time for absolutely all kinds of people to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, and know for themselves the peace and joy that comes from a truly personal encounter with the living God.