What is a theophany? The word theophany derives from two Greek words, which mean “God” and “appearing.” A theophany is a special case when God appears to human beings. God appeared in thunder and fire to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19-20). God appeared to Isaiah in a spectacular vision where Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1). The Old Testament records other cases, more than we might think. In some cases, God appears in human form. Sometimes there is lightning and thunder and fire. Sometimes he appears in a cloud. In some cases people see him seated on a throne, with angelic servants around him (1 Kings 22:19-23; Isa. 6:1-7; Ezek. 1:26-28; Dan. 7:9-10).
The theophanies in the Old Testament have three striking features.
First, they show us something of what God is like–his power, his holiness, his glory, and his grace.
Second, they transform people. In some cases, God inaugurates a new relationship with people. In others, he confirms and strengthens a relationship that already exists. Not all people react the same. But in some cases, people are transformed and come to understand and love God.
Third, these theophanies anticipate and foreshadow the coming of Christ. Christ is God in the flesh, the climactic appearance of God to which the Old Testament theophanies pointed forward: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The features describing Christ in the vision in Rev. 1:12-16 echo Old Testament theophanies, such as Ezek. 1:26-28 and Dan. 7:9-10, 13. So the Old Testament instances tell us beforehand about Christ. The people in the Old Testament met God the Father through his Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, though they did not fully understand their experience at the time. The appearance of the Holy Spirit in fire on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3-4) is like the theophanies with fire in the Old Testament. The theme of God’s presence and his appearing runs through the whole Bible.
You may read more about theophanies in a recent book: Vern S. Poythress, Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).