No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. (NIV)
For even more information on “seeing” God, see our explanation of Genesis 18:1 and 2, which covers God occasionally appearing in human form.
There are two different arguments that Trinitarians make regarding this verse. The first is that some people infer from John 6:46 that Jesus must be God, or at least that he pre-existed his birth, because he said he had seen the Father. The second is that in the Old Testament in quite a few instances people see God (Gen. 18:1-2; Exod. 6:2-3), and yet in the New Testament, Jesus says here in John 6:46 that no one has seen the Father, so therefore, there must be more than one person who is God, in order for the people in the Old Testament to have seen someone who is God but is not the Father. We will address both assertions.
Does John 6:46 teach that Jesus pre-existed his birth? Or that Old Testament saints were seeing another member of the Trinity besides the Father? First, it should be acknowledged that the verse does not directly mention anything about pre-existence or Jesus seeing the Father before his birth, and in no Old Testament Theophany is anyone besides the one True God mentioned, both assertions by Trinitarians would have to be read into the text.
First, it must be acknowledged that the typical Trinitarian view of this verse does not work. Trinitarians understand this verse to teach Jesus’ pre-existence because they take “seen” literally and understand Jesus to be the only one who has literally seen God while he pre-existed, however, what about the Holy Spirit? In Trinitarian doctrine the Holy Spirit is a separate person from the Father, and has existed with the Father and Son for all eternity, so should we believe that for eternity past the Holy Spirit never visibly saw the Father, but that the Son did? This simply does not make sense. Therefore, we should look for another way to understand John 6:46, and Jesus being the only one who has “seen” the Father.
When we recognize that John often uses οραω to mean “to perceive, or to see with the mind” then the tension between John 6:46 and Old Testament theophanies disappears. Let us dive into this question further.
There are so many times in the Old Testament when someone sees God (Exod. 3:6; 6:2-3; Gen. 18:1; Isa. 6:1) that to believe they never really saw God, seems implausible. We see his visible form in Genesis 3:8 when the sound of Yahweh walking could be heard, in Revelation 5:7 when God is sitting on the throne, and in Genesis 18:1 when he appears to Abraham by the oak tree. However, the Bible also clearly defines God as one, or one person (Deut. 6:4; Isa. 45:6; John 5:44; 17:3) and never defines God as three or three-in-one, so there is no reason to assume that they saw another person other than the Father, who is God. None of those Old Testament texts say that they saw the Son or the Holy Spirit so that idea would have to be read into those texts. It should also be noted that no Old Testament saint would read Genesis 18:1 or Isaiah 6:1 and think that God is anyone besides the Father, because they only understood one person to be God, the Father (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:29). So, it is a dangerous line of reasoning to conclude something different than anything the original hearers would or could have understood.
So, how do we reconcile the verses in which people seem to see God (Exod. 3:6; 6:2-3; Gen. 18:1; Isa. 6:1), with John 6:46 and John 1:18 in which no one has seen the Father but Jesus?
The key to understanding John 6:46 is knowing that the phrase “seen the Father” does not refer to seeing with the eye, but to seeing with the mind, to “knowing the Father.” Jesus knew God, not because he lived with God before his birth, but because God revealed Himself more clearly to Jesus than to anyone else and was “one” with him (John 10:30). Jesus made this clear in other teachings, saying, “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does…” (John 5:20a).
In both Hebrew and Greek, words translated “see” also mean “to know, to realize.” The Hebrew word ra’ah is used of both seeing with the eyes and knowing something, or perceiving it (Gen. 16:4; Exod. 32:1; Num. 20:29). Similarly, the Greek word horao, translated “see” in John 1:18, 6:46; and 3 John 1:11, can mean “to see with the eyes” or to see with the mind, to perceive (BDAG def. 4b). Even in English, one of the definitions for “see” is “to know or understand.” For example, when two people are discussing something, one might say to the other, “I see what you mean.”
The usage of “see” as it pertains to knowing is found in many places in the New Testament. For example, Jesus said to Philip, “…Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14:9). Here again the word “see” is used to indicate knowing. Anyone who knew Christ (not just those who “saw” him) would know the Father. In fact, Christ had made that clear two verses earlier when he said to Philip, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). In this verse Jesus says that those who know him have “seen” the Father. It is not that they have physically seen the Father, but they have seen what the Father is like, they have known him.
Another verse that uses the word “seen” in the sense of “known” is John 1:18.
John 1:18 (RSV)
No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
The phrase “seen God” is parallel to the phrase “has made Him known,” and both phrases refer to knowing God. No man fully knew God, but Jesus made Him known. Jesus is described as the exact imprint of God’s nature (Heb. 1:3), again, it is not his physical appearance that shows us what God looks like, but his Spirit-filled character that shows us the nature and heart of God. The full knowledge, the “truth” about God, came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). He was the one who “saw” (fully understood) God, and then he taught others—which is what John 1:18 teaches. Before Jesus Christ came, no one really knew God as He truly is, a loving heavenly Father, but Jesus Christ “saw” (knew) God intimately, because the Father revealed Himself clearly to him.
There are even more uses of “horao” as “perceiving” instead of “visibly seeing” by the author John. In 1 John 3:6 we read, “Everyone who continues sinning has not seen him or known him.” Here, John assumes that all Christians can “see” Jesus, not that we can literally see him, but that we can truly perceive him or known him. Likewise, in 3 John 1:11 we read, “the one who does what is good is of God, the one who does evil has not seen God.” This is another use of “seen” in which John means to communicate that those who do evil have not really known or perceived who God is. The verse has nothing to do with visibly seeing God.
Therefore, it is not out of the ordinary for John to use “horao” to communicate “seeing with the mind” or “perceiving” and that is exactly how John uses it in John 6:46. This occurs amid a very metaphorical exchange by Jesus in which he says that he “came down out of heaven” (John 6:42) and is the “bread of life” (John 6:48), neither one of those statements should be taken literally because Jesus is making a parallel between himself and manna in the Old Testament, a story in which God “gave them bread out of heaven to eat” (John 6:31).
John 6:46 is teaching that before Jesus, nobody could clearly see who God is. Again, John is not saying that no one visibly saw the Father before Jesus was born, because many people did see the Father in the Old Testament. Instead, Jesus is the first person to clearly see–not the appearance of God–the character of God.
Therefore, John 6:46 does not teach pre-existence, nor should it be used to conclude that Old Testament saints saw somebody else besides the Father when they saw God.
Back to the list of “Verses Used to Support the Doctrine of the Trinity”