We understand that Christ is God over all, blessed forever (Romans 9:5). John’s Gospel tells us that the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). So Christ is God, but He’s also a distinct Person, distinguishable from God. We can say that Christ is God, but we cannot say that God is Christ. The Athanasian Creed says the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, but the Father is God, the Son is God. And they’re one God, not two gods. Of course the same is true of the Holy Spirit. From the Athansian Creed:
[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
When we look into the Old Testament, we can find people who saw God:
- Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9–11)
- Moses (Exodus 33:17–23)
- Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Numbers 9:5–8) – this one is a bit questionable
- Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1)
- Daniel (Daniel 7:9–10)
- Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1)
When we look in the New Testament, we see the statement that “no one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). So how do we understand those together? I think there are at least two correct answers: two principles that are true at the same time.
The first is emphasized in Exodus 33:17–23. Moses asks God to show him His glory, and God responds that He can show him His goodness, and He will proclaim His name, but man can’t see His face and live (vv. 18–20). We understand God to be saying, “you can’t see all there is to see of Me”. That is, God was willing to show Moses some of Himself, but Moses couldn’t see all.
I think this is really the point of John the Baptist’s words in John 1:18; it’s not that no one has ever gotten a look at God, but the only complete view of God is in the Son.
There is something else going on here, which is brought out in John 12:37–41. John quotes Isaiah 53:1 (v. 38) and Isaiah 6:9–10 (v. 40). John specifically says Isaiah “saw his glory and spoke of him” (v. 41). Whose glory did Isaiah see? In Isaiah 6 we read that he saw “the King, Jehovah of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). But if we look at John 6:41 in context, the “him” there is Christ. So Isaiah sees Jehovah, and John quotes the passage to say that he had seen Christ.
When John says “no one has seen God at any time”, he is speaking the absolute truth: none of us have seen God completely. Some, like Moses, have seen as much of God as He can show a fallen man, but none have ever gotten the complete view of God.
At the same time, we know at least one of those “God sightings” was God showing Isaiah Christ. In fact, I believe that all of the Old Testament sightings of God were actually Christ appearing to them before His incarnation. This is what theologians call Christophany (sometimes Theophany). What gets really interesting is the end of Hebrews 1, where Psalm 102:24–28 are quoted. Hebrews says those are the words of God to the Son, and God tells the Son that He (the Son) is eternal, the creator of all things. That essentially makes the entire creation story of Genesis 1 & 2 into one long Christophany. It was the Son who created all things (cf. John 1:3).
Christ is eternally God (although technically, “Christ” is a title that really only applies in incarnation, but that’s another topic…). God is spirit (John 4:24). When we consider Him before incarnation, we think of eternal Sonship (that is, the Father - Son relationship in the Godhead is eternal), and we think of Him as the Creator of all things. I don’t know that there’s much more we can say about that…
Incarnation is something none of us can understand. The Son, who is eternal God, became Man. Of course He is not Man from eternity: He took on a body (Hebrews 10:5). At the same time, we realize He is not merely a human body possessed by the spirit of Christ: that’s the heresy of Apollonarism. We understand the He is a real Man, and apparently this is a permanent change: He ascended back into Heaven as a Man with a physical body, and we look to see Him return the same way (Acts 1:11). He is so completely Man, that 1 Corinthians 15:1–5 tells us, “He was buried” (v. 4). It’s not that they buried His body, but they buried Him.
Paul’s epistles refer to Christ as a real Man, even now that He’s ascended into Heaven. Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2:5 – ”the Man, Christ Jesus.”
1 Timothy 6:13–16 are probably worth mentioning here. In context, I take “the blessed and only Ruler” (v. 15) to be Christ. We’re told He lives in unapproachable light, which no man has seen, nor can see. There is apparently a place which not even those in Heaven can see, where only God can be. And Christ is there. Even in eternity, we won’t see in there. This is really what John 1:18 is talking about, the only way for any creature to know about God in that complete way is for God Himself to come out of that unapproachable light and tell us what goes on in there. This is what Christ has done.
Finally, we should probably mention Colossians 2:9. We’re told that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ bodily. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I’m certain it means that in Incarnation, Christ was never less than God. Our Protestant blood boils a bit when we hear Mary called “Mother of God”, but it is true in a very limited sense: when she gave birth to Christ, she gave birth to the fullness of the Godhead. No, that doesn’t mean that there is a Mother-Son relationship between Mary and God. No, I wouldn’t call Mary the Mother of God. But I fear our zeal to combat Mariolatry has led us to downplay the fullness of Christ’s nature as God. The fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in the Lord Jesus, even at His birth.