Q&A: Face to Face?

Face to Face?

Question

Isn't the Bible contradicting itself when it says no man can see the face of God? (see, Gen. 32:30, Deut. 5:4 and Ex. 33:20).

Answer

Genesis 32:30: So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."

Deuteronomy 5:4: The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain.

Exodus 33:20: "But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

In Exodus 33:20 we definitely see that mankind cannot behold the literal face of God. However, in the context of the other texts, "face to face," does not speak of the literal face of God. Hosea calls him an Angel (Hos. 12:4). Jacob in Genesis 28 saw a mysterious man identified as the presence of the Lord. In essence, Jacob saw the invisible God, not with his eyes but in his experience.

In Deuteronomy, Moses plainly says in the next verse, "At that time I stood between the LORD and you to declare to you the word of the LORD, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain." Neither Moses nor the people of Israel ever saw the literal face of God. But Moses did declare God's Word (which is God - John 1:1) to Israel from the mountain. They also beheld the fire, the presence of God as protection (Ex. 14:19-20; 14:24), worship (Ex.33:9), instruction and warning, (Num. 12:5; Deut. 31:15; Psa. 99:7), faithfulness (Neh. 9:12, 19). In each case there was an intimacy, a personal presence of God and his immediate and intimate loving presence.

In a related topic, the phrase "face of God" carries some blessed implications. The Bible speaks in several ways about God's face ministering in our lives (Ps. 31:16; 67:1; 80:3, 19; 119:135). In the Aaronic Blessing, we read:

Numbers 6:24-27
"The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace."
So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

This blessing is one of intimacy, a vivid picture of invisible God looking favorably upon his worshipers. See how grace is sandwiched in the phrase "his face"? This is a metaphor of his loving presence. In essence, the closer one's access to the face of God, the greater the blessing.

I once had the opportunity to meet the Queen of England. I had read about the queen, I had seen pictures. However, a face to face encounter was something else, something not to be forgotten - the pomp, the majesty, the regal setting. To really see the queen far exceeded everything I had previously seen or read. I mean no disrespect to the Queen, but how much more with the King of Kings! The opportunity to be in God's covenant presence, to behold his glory, his love, his will, his protection and the care of his people is, in essence, when we come to Christ. We are restored. When we meditate upon and obey God's word, and when we partake of the sacraments, the face of God is shinning upon us.

Face to face speaks of God's divine, intimate, loving presence. In a manner of speaking, it could be compared to coming face to face with the wind; you can feel the wind, hear it (John 3:8) and even measure its velocity, but you cannot see it. Face to face and yet unseen is how a blind man beholds another! God is with us in ways more than we can express and fathom in this lifetime (Gen. 31:3; 1 Kings 8; Isa. 7:14; 2 Chron. 13:12; Mat. 28:20). So, in a manner of speaking, Jacob and Moses and all Israel saw God face to face. And so can we in a similar way today. We can sense and partake of his immediate and loving presence in our lives.

Do you know God intimately? Do you see him "face to face" daily in prayer, word, and deed?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).