Q&A: Face-to-Face?

Face-to-Face?

Question

It has been mentioned in the Bible that people saw God and even spoke to him face to face. But later on, the Scriptures say that nobody has seen God except Jesus. Can you please explain this?

Answer

This subject is a frequent source of confusion for many of us. On the one hand, we have Old Testament figures such as Jacob claiming, "I saw God face to face" (Gen. 32:30). But then later Moses in Exodus 33:20 quotes God himself, saying, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." In Judges 13:22 Manoah, the father of Samson, exclaims to his wife, "We are doomed to die! ... We have seen God!" after a visitation from the angel of the Lord. But the apostle John says in John 1:18, "No one has ever seen God." What are we to make of all this?

Fortunately, Jesus, in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, sheds some light on this paradox when he responds to her question regarding the appropriate place to worship. In John 4:24 he says, "God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth." Previous to this time, the Jewish people were told that the only appropriate place to worship was in Jerusalem, but now the time had come to understand that God, being spirit, was not restricted to any particular location. Another detail related to God being spirit is that he does not have a "face." The numerous physical manifestations of God in the Old Testament (arguably including "the Angel of the Lord" in Judges, and commonly including "a man" throughout Genesis) are known as "theophanies," times when God accommodates himself to our limitations. In particular, he accommodates himself to our physical limitation of being unable to survive a direct exposure to the presence of God. For as he told Moses, "No one may see me and live."

Because God was pleased with Moses' willingness to intercede on behalf of the Israelites, God granted Moses' request ("show me your glory"), but only in part. God used anthropomorphic language (language using references to human characteristics) by saying that he would cover Moses in the cleft of the rock with his "hand" and as he passed, and that he would allow Moses to see his "back" but not his face (Exodus 33:21-23). This was God's way of telling Moses that he would be "seeing" God in his least glorious aspect (from the back), and even then his view was to be screened with the "hand" of God. This would be the only way Moses would be able to survive the encounter.

The prophet Isaiah records his own vision of God in Isaiah 6. The description in 6:1 does little to satisfy our curiosity, as it only depicts the Lord seated "on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple." But even this accommodation by God to Isaiah provoked overwhelming despair: "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty!" (Isa. 6:5).

So, when we read that God spoke to some people "face to face" (e.g., Gen. 32:30; Exod. 33:11), we are to understand that God spoke with them in a direct manifestation, sometimes in human form. But we are also to understand that in these revelations or theophanies, God veiled his glory so as not to destroy them. A "face-to-face" or "full" revelation of God's glory is that which man cannot survive.

The only man who has seen God in his fullness is Jesus, and this is because Jesus the Man is also Jesus the Son of God, meaning that Jesus is God himself. John 1:18 says, "No one has ever seen God, but God, the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." The references to the one "at the Father's side" and "the One and Only" refer to Jesus Christ.

Answer by Larry Gwaltney

Larry Gwaltney is Vice President of New Production Initiatives at Third Millennium Ministries.