Writing about the first time he saw God, Joseph Smith said, "I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other-This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" (J.S. 1:16,17)
Joseph later said, "I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution" (1:22). That was true back in 1823 and it is also true today. The modern-day preachers who profess to know religion contend that this story is false for three reasons. The first is that the Bible says "God is a Spirit," which they define as something that has neither shape, form nor body. Second, the Bible also states there is but one God. Third, the Bible says that no man has ever seen God (John 1:18). Since the Bible further declares that God is invisible (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17), and it is impossible to see something that's invisible, therefore it is impossible to see God.
All of this is at odds with the description Joseph gave. First, he said he actually saw the invisible God. Secondly, he said that God had a human shape, and third, he said he saw "two Personages" thereby indicating there are two Gods, not one.
However, the problem with all of these arguments is that the Bible does give descriptions of people having seen God, and, in all such appearances God has been described as looking like a man. The counter argument is that these divine manifestations were more like a dream-like vision rather than actual appearances by God, and that the descriptions given are not to be taken literally. Instead, it is said that the writers of the Bible used familiar language to describe the indescribable because there are no words possible that can express what God actually looks like. In fact, it is generally taught that what people saw in ancient times was not God Himself, because that is not possible. Rather it is said that they beheld His glory, not His Person. For these reasons, most biblical commentators say that when the writers of the Bible make reference to God's face or eyes, hands or feet, it is meant only in a figurative way.
As an example, they point to where the Bible says that God spoke to Moses "face to face" (Exodus 33:11). Nearly all Christian commentators say this is simply a literary expression signifying that Moses spoke directly with God rather than meaning God actually has a face like we do. And they say the Bible seems to confirm this when it adds "as one man speaks to another." This tells us that the expression "face to face" means that Moses and God were merely speaking to one another in conversation rather than saying that Moses looked into the face of God and God looked back into the face of Moses.
This same kind of argument is applied where the Bible talks about God taking "away His hand" and showing his "back parts" (Exodus 33:23). Rather than taking these verses literally to mean that God actually has a "hand" and "back parts" it is said that these references to the human body are just figures of speech and are to be taken in a symbolic sense. To prove their point, they cite Exodus 33:23 where God tells Moses, "Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live." Therefore, they say that if God did have a face (which they say He doesn't) and Moses actually did see it, he would have instantly died. Since Moses survived his encounter with God, that proves he didn't actually see Him.
On the surface, this seems to be a logical argument, but when we apply the same standard to those places in the Bible where man has described seeing God, this line of reasoning doesn't hold up. To see why, let's examine those instances.
In the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus we read where God "said unto Moses, Come up unto the Lord, thou and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel and worship ye [me] from afar. And Moses alone shall come near the Lord, but they shall not come nigh." (vs 1,2).
At the time God said this, the children of Israel were camped at the base of mount Sinai and Moses had already been to the top of the mountain where he had conversed with the Lord and received the Ten Commandments (chapter 20). But then God commanded Moses to go back down and bring seventy-three people part way up the mountain where God intended to appear before them. However, they would not be allowed to go all the way to the top of the mountain with Moses.
"Then went up Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under his feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand. Also, they saw God and did eat and drink" (24:9-11, emphasis added).
As we have just read, the Bible specifically and clearly states that seventy-three people actually saw God. There is nothing in these verses to indicate that they had a dream-like vision, or that some supernatural, indescribable manifestation appeared before them. "They saw God and did eat and drink" in His presence.
If they actually saw God, what did He look like? In this particular instance, the only description given is that "there was under his feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness." The New International Version renders this verse a little clearer when it says, "Under his feet was something [that looked] like a pavement made [out] of sapphire, clear as the sky itself." In other words, the Bible says they saw God's feet standing on what they described as a glorious and clear pavement. Obviously, this is not all they saw but this is the only description the Bible gives of God in this encounter.
To say that when the Bible says they saw God's "feet" that this is meant only in a figurative or symbolic sense rather than to mean God actually has two feet like we have is completely unfounded. But even if that were true, what would the symbolism be? There is absolutely nothing in this verse or in any of the surrounding verses that would clarify or justify such an interpretation. Although they had to use an analogy to describe what it was that God was standing on, they had no difficulty observing that he had "feet" or the fact that He was standing on something.
This account also says that "upon the children of Israel he laid not his hand." Does that mean God actually has a hand like we do or is this meant symbolically? The Amplified Bible translates this as "And upon the nobles of the Israelites He laid not His hand [to rebuke or harm them]." In this sense, the word "hand" could possibly be taken figuratively to mean that God did not pour out His wrath upon them. If it is being used in a figurative sense it is meant to symbolize that God did not "raise His hand" or, in other words, did not threaten them with harm. But, even if this is the meaning, it still doesn't prove that God has no actual hands. However, there is no similar confusion when it comes to the use of the word "feet."
In the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, we read of a vision that Ezekiel had where he saw animals and other things that were hard for him to describe. Because of this he constantly had to keep comparing what he saw to something we can understand. Then, he wrote, "And above the firmament that was over their heads (i.e., the animals he saw) was the likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man upon it. I saw as the color of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about…. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (26-27,28).
The NIV translates this as "Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure [that looked] like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from [his waist] down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him"
Ezekiel said that he saw something that looked to him as though it was a throne which was beautiful and magnificent and appeared to be made out of sapphire. In other words, he wasn't sure what the purpose of this seat was he saw or exactly what it was made of, but the seat reminded him of a throne and the material it was made of reminded him of sapphire stone.
Then he said that high above this seat that looked like it might have been a throne he saw someone. And what did this person look like? Ezekiel said he had the form of a man, meaning he had a human shape. And what did this "man" look like? Ezekiel said that from this man's waist upward he glowed in the same way that glowing metal does, and from this man's waist downward he also glowed like fire does.
Ezekiel had no trouble identifying that this man had a waist on him. What Ezekiel did have a problem describing was the glow that seemed to emanate from this man. He said, there was brilliant light surrounding him and it seemed that this man was on "fire." Does that mean there were actual flames of fire coming off of this person? Apparently not. His use of the word "fire" is meant in a descriptive way rather than literally. However, there is nothing figurative in this account about the word "waist." In other words, the imagery that Ezekiel uses is only meant to describe the glow that emanated from this person, not his form.
There are those who point to the phrase "the appearance of" as proof that Ezekiel's use of the word "man" is meant figuratively, otherwise he would have said he was a man. However, just the opposite is true. The person Ezekiel saw looked every bit like a man but he had never seen a man who glowed like fire and was surrounded with brilliantly bright light. Although this man had a human form, apparently Ezekiel had ever seen a man who radiated so much light from his body. That's why he said the person he saw had "the appearance of a man."
Interestingly, Joseph Smith used nearly the same language in describing his vision of God when he said "I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description." Apparently the brightness and glory of the person Ezekiel saw likewise defied all description but he was not at a loss for words to describe this person as looking like a man, and neither was Joseph Smith.
But who was this "man" that Ezekiel saw? It is clear that this person was not an angel. Then who was it? Ezekiel said that this person had the same appearnace as the glory of the Lord. That raises the question of who else would have the same appearance as the Lord if it wasn't the Lord Himself?
The apostles of Christ had a similar experience. All Christians agree that Jesus was God, made manifest in the flesh. By that we mean He came to earth and took upon Himself the shape and form of a human. There was nothing about the way Jesus looked that made Him appear different than any other man. Yet, on one particular day when Jesus took "with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them" (Mark 9:2,3) and "his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light" (Matt. 17:2).
These three disciples had the privilege of seeing Christ in His full glory. Just as the man Ezekiel saw, the man Jesus, glowed with a brilliance that was unearthly, even though He still retained His human form. When the scriptures say that His "face" shone as the sun, we take that statement literally rather than saying that Jesus didn't really have a "face." When it says that even His clothing became so brilliantly white that is was not possible to find anything on earth that could be made to look that white, we interpret that literally rather than saying the word "clothing" is meant only in a figurative way. As with the man Ezekiel saw, it wasn't the shape of the person that was hard to describe but the glow that came from Him that was indescribable.
The prophet Daniel had a similar vision. He wrote, "Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz: His body also was like the beryl and his face as the appearance of lightening and his eyes as lamps of fire and his arms and his feet like in color to polished brass and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude" (Daniel 10:5,6).
Upon a quick reading of this scripture it would seem that the description Daniel gives of the "man" he sees is all imagery. The religonists point to the dream that King Nebuchadnezzar had of a man with a head, that "was of fine gold, breasts and arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, [and] his feet [was] part of iron and part of clay" (Dan. 2:32,33) as evidence that the vision Daniel later had is not to be taken literally but was symbolic, much as King Nebuchadnezzar's dream was. But that is not what this scripture claims.
The NIV translates this as, "I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude."
Daniels says that he saw with his natural eyes "a certain man clothed in linen." That is a literal statement. There is nothing in any of the surrounding verses that suggests Daniel did not see an actual man dressed in some sort of a linen garment. He next states that this man had a belt wrapped around his waist. As in Ezekiel's vision, Daniel had no trouble telling that this man had a waist. And what kind of a belt was around his waist? Daniel says it looked as though it was something made out of "fine gold of Uphaz." Is that what this belt was really made of? We don't know, but that's what it looked like to Daniel. But regardless of what it was actually made of, this "man" literally had a gold looking belt around his waist.
Daniel says that this man had a body, with arms and legs. What did this body look like? Here Daniel has to use imagery, not to describe that the man had a body but to describe the color of the body. His chest was the color of Chrysolie while his arms and legs brightly gleamed as though they were made out of burnished bronze. This is very similar in description to the man Ezekiel describes seeing and the description Joseph Smith gave when he saw God. This man had a face, with eyes in it. What did his face look like? Again, Daniel does not use imagery to say that the man had a face with eyes. Instead, he has to use imagery to describe how this man's face and eyes shone.
If we say that the man Daniel saw did not really have a head with eyes and a body with arms and legs, then that contradicts what John wrote in the book of Revelation. He said, "And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter" (Rev. 1:12-19).
The description of the man John saw is nearly identical in every respect to the man Daniel saw, Joseph Smith saw, and Peter, James, and John saw on the mount of transfiguration. And who was it that John saw? It was none other than Jesus Christ, the risen Lord Himself!
As Christians we believe that Jesus is God. When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection He looked like a man, meaning He had a head with hair on it and a face that had two eyes, and a mouth. He had a body with arms, legs, and feet. He had two hands that He showed them and had them touch. There was nothing indescribable about what the resurrected Jesus looked like and the writers of the New Testament speak of his body in a very real and literal sense.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus rose from the grave with a human looking body, and it was with that same body He ascended to heaven to sit on the right hand of God. (Mark 16:19; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 10:12; 1 Pet. 3:12). Therefore, when Jesus appeared to John, He had the same shape and form He had when He was resurrected and with which He ascended into heaven. And that form and shape is that of a man.
But Jesus was no longer an earthly man. Now He had a magnificently glorious body. Although He still had hair on top of his head, His hair was radiantly white as snow. He still had eyes, but they shone like bright fire. He still had feet but they glowed as if made out of fine, polished brass. He still had a mouth and a voice, but now when He spoke, His words came forth like the loud roar of many waters. As with the man that both Ezekiel and Daniel saw who was surrounded by light, John says that the entire countenance of Jesus shone like the sun. As we have already seen, this is the same description the apostles gave when they saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain and is the same description Joseph Smith gave of God.
When Jesus appeared to John, He was not just a blob of blinding light, having no shape or form. John described Him as looking very much like a man. Furthermore, Jesus did not appear naked before John. Instead, He was fully clothed, wearing a long garment that came down to His feet, and there was a girdle wrapped around His waist. There is no indication anywhere in this account that remotely suggests that John's choice of words in describing these articles of clothing was meant in a figurative sense.
As we study the Bible we find that whenever men have seen God they have always described Him as looking like a man. God does not appear as a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). God does not appear and speak as a donkey (Num. 22:22-35). He does not appear as a violent storm. He only appears as a man. And the descriptions given of Him as looking like a man are not figurative or imaginary. They are literal and real.
Then why did Jesus say that God is a spirit?
The first mistake people make is assuming that if something is a spirit then it cannot have a human shape. Angels are spirits (Heb. 1:7) yet they are described as "men" when they appeared at the empty tomb of Jesus (Luke 24:3,4). When Jesus ascended into heaven two angels stood by the disciples and they are likewise described as being "men who were wearing white apparel" (Acts 1:10). When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, He looked like a man "But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed they had seen a spirit" (Luke 24:36). But how could they have mistaken Him for a spirit or even recognized who He was if a spirit doesn't have a human shape?
When speaking about an angel who had shown him things that would happen in the future, John wrote, "And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things" (Rev. 22:8). Obviously, this angel had feet and yet he was a spirit.
There are many places in the Bible where it is clear that spirits can and do have the same shape and form that humans have. (For a more in-depth look at this read "The Spirit of God." ). So, just because Jesus said that God is a spirit doesn't mean He has a different shape than we do. In fact, the Bible tells us that when our bodies are resurrected from the grave, they will "be fashioned like unto [Christ's] glorious body" (Philippians 3:21). But how can that be if Christ is God and God doesn't have a body because He is a spirit? However, if the glorious description John gives of Christ is indeed that of a man, then it makes perfect sense that our corruptible body, that is fashioned with a head, hair, face, eyes, mouth, arms, legs, hands and a waist will someday be made to look as glorious as the body that God possesses.
The second, and most flagrant error with misunderstanding this scripture is that people take it out of context, thereby making it say something that it was never intended to say. In fact, the short, four word phrase "God is a spirit" is just a small segment of much longer sentence, but the rest of the sentence is never considered when quoting this verse. Therefore, to properly understand what Jesus meant when He said that God is a spirit, we need to understand what prompted Him to make such a statement and how He used it to make His point.
Jesus had come to a city in Samaria called Sychar and, being weary, he stopped to refresh Himself at a well. While there, a Samaritan woman also came to the well and began to have a conversation with Him. "The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:19-24).
The Jews taught that the only place a person could truly worship God was in the temple located in Jerusalem. Since the Samaritans were despised by the Jews, they were not permitted into the temple. Therefore, the Samaritans had built their own temple on mount Gerizim where they could worship God. The question this woman asked Jesus was, where was the proper place to worship God - in Jerusalem or on mount Gerizim?
Jesus answered by telling her that the Samaritans didn't even know who they were worshipping, but the Jews did. The obvious implication of His words was that the Samaritans were not properly worshipping God, whether they did it at their own temple or the one in Jerusalem. The next thing he told her was that the time was coming soon, and, in fact, was already here, that the true worshippers wouldn't need to go either to Jerusalem or to mount Gerizim, but rather would "worship the Father in spirit and in truth."
There are two questions we need to ask ourselves at this point. The first is, what did Jesus mean by the phrase "true worshippers" and the second is, what did He mean when He said we were to worship the Father in spirit, as well as in truth?
The answer to the first question is that only those who truly know who they are worshipping know how and where to properly worship God. Thus, a "true worshipper" is someone who has the correct understanding of God. If you don't know who God is then you can't truly worship Him because you don't understand who you are worshipping or how He wants you to worship Him.
And how does God want us to worship Him? Jesus answered that by saying God expects us to worship Him "in spirit and in truth." The apostle Paul himself taught the same message (Phil. 3:3 ). But what does that mean?
If our definition of a "spirit" is something that has no shape or form, then we would have to say that Jesus taught that we would have to become a "spirit" ourselves in order to truly worship God, which means we would be required to turn into some sort of a formless being. In that case, there is not one person on the earth today who truly worships God because all of us still have a human form. Obviously though, that definition has to be incorrect because nowhere in the Bible does it teach such a concept of worship. Therefore, Jesus must have meant something else when He used the word "spirit."
What makes this question so important is because it was immediately after saying that we must worship God "in spirit and in truth" that Jesus then said, "God is a spirit." In other words, Jesus is saying that the reason why we must worship God in spirit is because God is a spirit. Or, stated in reverse, because God is a spirit therefore, to truly worship Him, we must do so in spirit. But, if we don't correctly understand what the word "spirit" means then, according to Jesus, we cannot truly worship God. This is the context in which Jesus made His statement.
Jesus explained to Nicodemus, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6), meaning that whenever someone is born of God's Spirit, they become "spirit." The apostle Paul taught that someone who is born of the spirit becomes "a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17), meaning that someone who is spirit doesn't live their life the way the world does. Instead, they behave differently. They behave the way God does.
Paul also declared, "But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit" (1 Cor. 6:17), meaning that we become one with Him. To be one with the Lord means to think like the Lord thinks, do the things the Lord would do, and have the same desires that the Lord has. This is the definition the Bible gives us of a "spirit." Thus, when Jesus says that "God is a spirit" He is referring to the kind of lifestyle that God lives. Therefore, in order for us to truly worship God "in spirit" we must become the kind of person He is. But before we can do that, we must first understand what kind of Being it is we are worshipping. And this was the very point Jesus was making to the Samaritan woman.
When writing about Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul said that He was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness" (Rom. 1:4, emphasis added). What did Paul mean when he used the word "spirit?" In this case, he seems to indicate it means holiness. The Bible teaches that God is a holy Being and He has said that we are to be holy even as He is holy (Lev. 11:45). Therefore, we see that one of the definitions of "spirit" is being holy. Thus, for us to worship God in spirit means we are to worship Him in holiness.
Since God doesn't lie (Titus 1:2) that means He always tells the truth. In fact, the Bible tells us that God is full of truth (John 1:14). Since one of the aspects of holiness is to be truthful, in order to properly worship God we must be honest, with God, our neighbor, and ourselves.
The Bible tells us that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). Therefore, to truly worship God, we must worship Him in love. In fact, the greatest commandment God has given us is that "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matt.22:37). The second greatest commandment similarly tells us that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Bible verifies this when it says, "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also" (1 John 4:20,21).
The Bible tells us that "every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God" (1 John 4:7,8). Therefore, to truly worship God we must know Him and we can't do that if we don't love God and our neighbor. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she didn't know what she worshipped, and if we don't love God or our neighbor we are no different than the Samaritans who didn't know God and therefore didn't know what kind of being they were worshipping or how to truly worship Him.
God is a holy Being, therefore we must worship Him in holiness. Since God is also a truthful Being, we must likewise worship Him in truth. Because God is a loving Being, we must therefore worship Him in love. The context in which Jesus uses the word "spirit" in this instance, infers being "spiritual," which is defined as "concerned with things pertaining to the soul; relating to God or sacred matters."(the American Heritage Dictionary and Miriam-Webster Dictionary). Being spiritual is the state of being holy, divine, righteous, and virtuous. Therefore, the point Jesus was trying to make to the Samaritan woman was that in order to truly worship God we must do so in righteousness and with all honesty because that is the kind of Being we are worshipping. Anything less than that is not truly worshipping God. This is what Jesus meant when He said that "God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."