I’ve been a thinking a lot recently about Jesus’ statement to the Jewish leaders in John 5:37 that, “You people have never heard his voice nor seen his form at any time.” This text, among others in the Gospel of John, helps to explain Christological interpretations of the Old Testament. It also seems like this verse is explicitly connected to instances in the Old Testament where God’s form was said to be seen.
In his commentary on John 5:37, Beasley-Murray says:
The Father’s witness is not to be thought of as immediate and separate from those named (e.g., the voice at the baptism and the transfiguration of Jesus, neither of which finds mention in this Gospel). The clue to what is in mind is seen in what follows: though the Jews acknowledged that they had not seen the form of God, they prided themselves on being the nation that heard the voice of God—at the giving of the Law at Sinai (Exod 19:16–25; Deut 4:11–12, 33). Jesus denied that claim to his contemporaries, for they do not have the word of God abiding in them (v 38), as is evident in their rejection of him whom the Father sent, to whom the Scriptures bear witness.
Jesus is striking at the heart of first-century Jewish identity. If we want to be specific, Jesus is also (at face value) contradicting Moses. For when Jesus says to the Jewish leaders that “you” haven’t seen God’s form or heard his voice, what we seem to be dealing with here is synecdoche, or the part of something (these particular Jews) standing in for the whole (Israel). That is, Israel has neither seen the Father’s form nor heard his voice, and the evidence for this is these Jewish leaders that Jesus is addressing.
This seems quite in line with the “Johannine Paradigm” (not to mention 1 Timothy 6:16). John 5:37 doesn’t seem relativized to just those that Jesus is addressing, especially because of the terminological parallels to John 1:18.
Now let’s look at those texts that Beasley-Murray cites, among others.
Israel Heard God
Exodus 19:16-25 says:
19:16 On the third day in the morning there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; all the people who were in the camp trembled. 19:17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain. 19:18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently. 19:19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice.
19:20 The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 19:21 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the LORD to look, and many of them perish. 19:22 Let the priests also, who approach the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break through against them.”
19:23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people are not able to come up to Mount Sinai, because you solemnly warned us, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and set it apart.’ ” 19:24 The LORD said to him, “Go, get down, and come up, and Aaron with you, but do not let the priests and the people force their way through to come up to the LORD, lest he break through against them.” 19:25 So Moses went down to the people and spoke to them. (NET, as with all citations hereafter)
Just prior to this the Lord tells Moses how he is going to come down, “so that the people may hear when I speak with you and so that they will always believe in you” (Exodus 19:9). The Lord also commands Moses to tell the Israelites to cleanse themselves (19:10ff).
So, Exodus itself says that all Israel saw the fire on Sinai in which God came down, and that they all heard God’s voice when he spoke to Moses.
The book of Deuteronomy, which is largely a series of speeches by Moses, recounts this several times. Beasley-Murray noted the first of these recollections:
Deuteronomy 4:11 You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, a mountain ablaze to the sky above it and yet dark with a thick cloud. 4:12 Then the LORD spoke to you from the middle of the fire; you heard speech but you could not see anything—only a voice was heard.
It’s interesting that in verse 12, the Lexham English Septuagint (LES2) says, “you saw no image [lit. “likeness”], except a voice [ὁμοίωμα οὐκ εἴδετε ἀλλʼ ἢ φωνήν].”
If you just search for “fire” in Deuteronomy, you’ll find just how many times Moses makes similar statements:
Deuteronomy 4:15 Be very careful, then, because you saw no form at the time the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the middle of the fire.
4:33 Have a people ever heard the voice of God speaking from the middle of fire, as you yourselves have, and lived to tell about it?
4:36 From heaven he spoke to you in order to teach you, and on earth he showed you his great fire from which you also heard his words
5:4 The LORD spoke face to face with you at the mountain, from the middle of the fire.
There are several more, but you get the point. This event is at the very core of Israel’s identity, for they saw the fire in which God was (but didn’t see God’s “image/likeness”), heard God’s voice from the fire, and yet their lives were spared. And he didn’t do this for any other nation.
Enter Jesus Christ, who explicitly denies that the Jewish leaders (and by synecdoche, unbelieving Israel in his day) are partakers of this most fundamental event. According to Jesus through John, they have neither seen God’s form nor heard his voice at any time (πώποτε) (John 5:37).
So whose voice was it? Who is this one who is explicitly called “God” and “Lord,” who is said to have appeared in the fire on Mt Sinai, and is said to have been heard by all Israel? It wasn’t the Father.
Following the interpretive practice of second century Christians (and beyond), it seems we are within our rights, on the basis of Scripture, to say that it was God’s Son and Word.
A Difficult Problem for Oneness Pentecostals
On certain views of Oneness Christology that I have called “standard” views, this is a serious problem. Not only because of the apparent existence of the Son (not just the subject who later became the Son) in the Old Testament, but because “at any time” (πώποτε) includes the time at which Jesus is speaking. If Jesus is the Father Incarnate, as standard Oneness Christology claims, then who the Jewish leaders are hearing isn’t the voice of the Father. It is the voice of a subject numerically distinct from himself, who is his Son.
In all my years as a Oneness Pentecostal, and with all my familiarity with certain Oneness writers, I haven’t found a satisfactory response to this problem. With all his virtues and thoroughness, for example, Dr. David K. Bernard doesn’t quote or refer to John 5:37 even once in The Oneness of God or The Oneness View of Jesus Christ. I admire the man’s scholarship, his influence, and how he served as an intellectual role model for me for many years. But the argument I’ve presented here is a glaring omission from his corpus.
Once again I think the most plausible Oneness explanation of these texts has to involve what I’ve called “modified” Oneness views. I’ve written elsewhere about how such a view might “work.” However, I don’t see that such a view is what the earliest “modalistic monarchians” held (or arguably held), nor what early Oneness Pentecostals held, nor what they say today. It seems like the earliest mention of such a view is in 2019, where I suggest the view as an alternative.
It doesn’t take “Greek philosophical categories” or the corrupting influence of Plato on later Christian centuries to see the problem here, nor the conclusion toward which it more clearly points. Neither is it difficult to see why “modalistic monarchianism” was rejected when it came on the radar near the end of the second century in Rome. At face value, the view just doesn’t fit with what Jesus says in John 5:37, among other things.