Abraham’s Theophany – Did Abraham See God Face to Face?

Scripture records several incidents from the Old Testament when God took on human form and made Himself visible, including when He visited Abraham on Mamre Plain.

Abraham recognized these visitors as something special and ran to greet them, then bow himself low before bowing himself on his knees before bowing back down again on the ground. Their arrival caused Abraham to recognize their significance by this pronounced response of greeting and bowing low before them.

What did he see?

As Abraham never saw God directly, there is evidence in Scripture to support that he experienced several theophany experiences – manifestations of God appearing as humans – such as when three men appeared before him in Genesis 18.

It is widely held that Jesus was among those visitors (for more details see The Lord Jesus and His First Coming). At one meeting, He told Abraham his day would come, suggesting the coming of Messiah – something Abraham understood when he replied with “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14).

God sent three men to Sodom and Gomorrah with a plan to judge it. These three men warned Abraham of His plans to destroy these cities if even one righteous person was found; Abraham offered up his son as sacrifice, yet was refused (Genesis 18:20-32).

After their conversation concluded, one of the men arose and entered Abraham’s tent – according to tradition, this act represented his spiritual elevation – before saying they were sent from above and would return again at another time.

Abraham stands as an example of faith throughout the New Testament. Indeed, Hebrews devotes more space than any other individual in his entire book to Abraham! Paul calls Abraham the best example of living by faith while Jesus himself refers to Abraham several times as one of His closest allies (John 8:54).

What did he say?

The Bible does document at least one encounter between Abraham and God directly, in Genesis 18 when three mysterious strangers brought by Him visited Abraham as hosts (vv. 3-8). Some rabbis believe they may have been angels from Heaven while others argue the Hebrew text leaves an ambiguity that suggests these could have been regular people sent by Him (vv. 10-11).

At this critical juncture in his life, Abraham had to prove his faith through deed. He must obey what the Lord instructed and not falter or waver when it came time to offer up his son as an offering. This momentous occasion marked an incredible feat on Abraham’s part – not least by offering up one of his sons as sacrifice!

Genesis 22 narrates Abraham’s dramatic tale of binding Isaac. Here was Abraham’s ultimate test from God: taking Isaac with him as instructed and going to Moriah as part of a burnt offering was no small act of obedience! It could only end in tragedy had Isaac been offered as sacrifice.

Even though Abraham knew God would fulfill His promise and provide an heir through Isaac, taking this step was still risky for him. After all, he lived among a people who worshipped idols and followed a God who broke natural laws like conservation of matter; how could He transform one kilogram of bone into a complete person?

Abraham demonstrated true faith when he did what God asked of him despite all of its risks, obediently obeying what God asked and trusting in God even though it seemed impossible (Heb 11:16). Abraham stands as an example to us all for how true faith looks like, continuing his obedience right up until his last breath and trust in him until his final breath (he is one of our best models!). By obeying, he became counted righteous by God (Heb 11:16).

What did he do?

Genesis 18 records one of many appearances of God to Abraham that can be taken literally; Abraham responded by bowing down in an act typically reserved for royalty or deities indicating his recognition of an appearance of the Lord as one called a theophany (Revelation 1:18; John 1:29; Acts 10:43).

God was delighted that Abraham responded faithfully to His call even though both he and Sarah were barren. He promised fame, fruitfulness and an inheritance land from which to inherit; He even promised blessings upon their world through them! However, Abraham knew he couldn’t achieve these benefits on his own; therefore he relied daily upon God for guidance and provision (Genesis 22:17).

According to Hebrews 11:8, Abraham obeyed when God called him by faith and set out without knowing where he would end up settling his inheritance (Hebrews 11:8). God didn’t choose Abraham to carry out His plan because He thought He should and wanted someone special – rather, He chose Abraham because of Abraham’s profound trust and love in Him.

As soon as the Lord appeared to Abraham and Sarah, He promised they would conceive in about one year’s time. Although Abraham initially laughed at this promise, he quickly accepted it and gave Sarah permission to keep having children.

Abraham had an encounter with God that strengthened his faith: in a vision, He forewarned him about Sodom and Gomorrah where God prepared to execute judgment, much as He did during Lot’s life (Luke 17:28-30). Seeing this event strengthen Abraham’s trust.

Abraham stood out among his family because of his faithful obedience and trust in the Lord, distinguishing him as someone of extraordinary faith and obedience to His calling. Living by faith rather than sight, he anticipated an eternal city and nation which is the basis for what the Bible refers to as “sanctification by faith”, the cornerstone of our salvation in Christ Jesus.

What did he mean?

The biblical account of Abraham’s encounter with God is somewhat obscure. Genesis 18:1 tells us that Abraham was visited by three mysterious figures who seemed like ordinary people, yet when he saw them he ran out to meet them and show hospitality. At first he did not recognize who his visitors were but once they spoke he recognized who they were.

He had just come from Ur, where his life had been secure in a townhouse he owned with his family, to a new life on the edge of civilization; all he could rely on as assurance was God’s word.

Abram was given promise that his offspring would become numerous and all nations of the world would benefit through them. To fulfill that promise, however, required an act of great faith on Abram’s part; when he attempted to kill his son with an axe, God intervened and reiterated His promise instead.

Abraham was revered as both father of Israel and grandfather to Jesus Christ for his faithful obedience to YHWH (or God), even when it meant going into places he didn’t know much about – such as obeying Him without knowing where it was leading him (Hebrews 11:8).

YHWH is commonly known in Hebrews as The Lord, and throughout Scripture He is addressed by this name. El or El Elyon are also other names for Him that Abraham saw and acknowledged Him as their Creator.

Christ refers to Himself in the New Testament as Abraham’s spiritual son, sending his Son Jesus Christ to take human form and die for our sins. Jesus knew us better than ourselves; He knows what it will feel like to see His Father again someday in heaven; He gives hope and can assure us that by following His word faithfully we will survive natural death and join up with our spiritual families- our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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