At one point in his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul breaks into a kind of benediction: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” (1:17) This is a great statement of praise, but what strikes me is the list of attributes he applies to God.
Eternal means He has no beginning or end – He is the creator of time and beyond time. Immortal means He Himself is not created, and He can never not be. But what exactly does it mean that our God is “invisible”? What is Paul getting at here?
I think we need to compare this verse with something Paul says later in the book. Toward the end of his letter, he gives a charge to Timothy.
I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6:13-16
Here Paul speaks of God as one who “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see”. Now, the question I asked myself when I read this was, “Which person of the Trinity is he talking about?” We believe that God the Son was made incarnate as a human being and was indeed visible to an awful lot of people. So is Paul only talking about the Father here?
If we work backwards from “unapproachable light”, we see that Paul mentions “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords”. The book of Revelation, among others, would suggest that this at least includes God the Son, if not being pointed at Him specifically. If we back up to the beginning of the verse, we see Paul charge Timothy “in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus”. Thus, Paul has in mind both God in general or God the Father and God the Son. Even in this one passage, we seem to be seeing both visible and invisible aspects of God.
Let us now take a little trip to the book of Exodus, where God is having a conversation with Moses.
Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”
Two takeaways from this portion of scripture: First, we see the strange references to God’s “face” and His “back”. Moses can look upon one and not the other, and the reason is that if He looks directly upon the glory of God, he will die. Notice, Moses asks to see God’s glory. God responds that He will “make all My goodness pass before you”. Here again we are seeing a distinction between things made visible and things invisible. The second thing worth noting is that God connects this matter of what Moses can and cannot see with an interesting theological truth: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” Thus, we have the mystery of God’s glory linked with the mystery of His sovereign will.
Now, if these things were beyond Moses’ ability to view or understand, I cannot explain them to you perfectly today. But it is certainly safe to say that there are some things that God chooses to reveal and some that He chooses not to reveal, and though we may not understand the reasons, those reasons are for our benefit. For example, Moses wanted to see God’s glory, but God knew that would kill Moses – therefore, He gave him something different.
The concept of the Deus Absconditus (“hidden God”) has a long history in Christian theology. Thomas Aquinas talked about it, as have numerous others after him. Perhaps the most famous discussion of this concept occurred in the writings of Martin Luther. In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther put forward two important theses:
That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened; he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
Theses 19 and 20
Luther made a real point in this disputation of contrasting “theologians of glory” with “theologians of the cross”: only the latter have a correct understanding of the visible and invisible aspects of God. In his explanation of these points, Luther says,
Because men misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering, and to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering.
Explanation of Thesis 20
There is a glory of God that is invisible, upon which Moses could not bear to look. But Luther suggests, and I firmly believe, that there is a glory of God that was made entirely visible, but at which many men do not dare look. That is the incarnate Son of God, veiled in human flesh, suffering and bleeding upon a cross.
The Apostle Paul says of Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:15, 19-20) As Christ Himself acknowledged, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (in John 14:9)
This was why the Apostle John wrote, “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 1:14) This was not what the Jews of Jesus’ day expected. They were not looking for a suffering servant, but a conquering king. Yet, Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the revelation of God to mankind, as John also says: “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 1:14-18)
As he was praying in the garden of Gethsemane just before He was to die, Jesus said, “Father the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.” (John 17:1b-2) Yes, in this most inglorious time from a human perspective, when He was about to be executed as a blasphemous criminal, Jesus declared that God would be glorified. Just look what Paul wrote elsewhere.
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, as we acknowledge the invisible aspects of God and the glory that will not be seen by any human in this life, let us praise Him for the glory that was revealed to us in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ – the mystery about which Paul wrote to Timothy:
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
1 Timothy 2:16
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation. The Luther quotes are taken from the website of the Lutheran Book of Concord: http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php