In verse 18, John says,
“no man has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”
The word “ἑώρακεν” that is translated here as ‘seen’ in most of the English translations is third person singular of “ὁράω” which, according to Thayer, has three basic definitions. First, it means to see with the eyes. Secondly, it means to see with the mind, to know, to perceive. Thirdly, it means to become acquainted with through pragmatic experience (The 1981 New Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon, p 451). In 1 John 4:12, τεθέαται has a very similar set of meanings. John is the writer of both letters, and seems to use both words in the same context of meaning.
If John is arguing from the first definition, this needs to be understood in the light of pragmatic Old Testament examples. We know from the many examples of theophonic manifestations in the Old Testament that God has repeatedly presented himself to man in a number of ways. At times, God availed himself only to man’s auditory senses. He spoke to Adam, to Cain, to Noah, to the Hebrew patriarchs, to Moses, to the prophets, and to others. Sometimes he visited himself upon man in the form of dreams or visions as to the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah chapter six. Other times, he appears as objects such as the cloud or the pillar of fire that went before Israel in the wilderness. Still, there are other times when he visited man in human form. There are some eight accounts of this type of theophany found in the Old Testament.
The word ‘theophany’ is derived from two Greek words, “Θεὸς” meaning God and “φωνή” meaning sound or voice. A theophany then is a hearing of the voice of God. Theophonic experiences in scripture assume many forms, yet all seem to have a singular function. They communicate the will of God to man. They provide man with a point of reference that man can comprehend. In so doing, God is demonstrating compassion for the limitations of the human mind to understand things that are beyond his ability to comprehend. In some theophonic experiences, God will accommodate only man’s sense of hearing. One only heard the voice of God. God speaking to Noah in Genesis 6 is just such an example. Another is Genesis 12 where God spoke to Abraham. Sometimes, these theophanies would be accompanied by some type of material phenomenon such as fire, wind, or earthquake as in the cases of Moses in Exodus 3, the nation of Israel in Exodus 13 and Elijah in 1Kings 19. Each of these accompanying natural phenomena would appeal to a broader range of physical senses as God sometimes chose to speak in these things. Still, at other times, God chose to assume an anthropomorphic form as in Genesis 18 when he appeared to Abraham in the company of two angels, all in human form. For further reference, one might examine these examples of anthropomorphic theophanies. What appears in each of these is the repeated phrase “The Angel of Jehovah” 22:15-18; 31:11-13; 48:15-16, Joshua 5:13-15, Judges 6:11-24, and Judges 13:15-23.
In each example where the phrase “The Angel of Jehovah” is used, God is represented as the messenger of Jehovah. The phrase “The Angel of Jehovah” is only used to describe the spokesman of deity. This term is never applied to anyone else in scripture. He is always functioning as the spokesman of the divine triad. In each case, this is deity appearing in human form. In every example, those to whom The Angel of Jehovah appeared always understood, at some point, that he was God and they honored him as such. The Angel of Jehovah will always assume divine authority in each of these Old Testament exemplars. He will always be seen serving as the agent of communication, hence the term “The Angel of Jehovah.” He is angelic not in nature but in function. In nature, he is God. In function, he is the messenger in the triadic unity.
If “ἑώρακεν” in verse 18 is to be understood as an intellectual limitation, this would seem to fit better with the closing statement of this prologue. “He has explained him.” The Greek word “ἐξηγήσατο” means to set forth in detail, to set forth in language, to make known or to reveal (George V. Wagram’s Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 1983). This is the etymology of our word ‘exegete’. In other words,
“No man has understood or comprehended God at any time. The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has EXPLAINED him.”
The Logos presents God to the mind of man through the medium of human language in such a way that man is now able to understand something of the nature and character of God that he could never know from his observation of the natural world. Only the one who came out of the very presence of God could have done this.