What Seeing the Face of God Means in the Bible

Face of God
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The phrase "face of God," as used in the Bible, gives important information about God the Father, but the expression can be easily misunderstood. This misunderstanding makes the Bible seem to contradict itself on this concept.

The problem begins in the book of Exodus, when the prophet Moses, speaking with God on Mount Sinai, asks God to show Moses his glory. God warns that: "…You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." (Exodus 33:20, NIV)

God then places Moses in a cleft in the rock, covers Moses with his hand until God passes by, then removes his hand so Moses may see only his back.

Using Human Traits to Describe God

Unraveling the problem begins with a simple truth: God is spirit. He does not have a body: "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth." (John 4:24, NIV)

The human mind cannot comprehend a being who is pure spirit, without form or material substance. Nothing in human experience is even close to such a being, so to help readers relate to God in some understandable way, the writers of the Bible used human attributes to speak of God. In the passage from Exodus above, even God used human terms to speak of himself. Throughout the Bible, we read of his face, hand, ears, eyes, mouth, and mighty arm.

Applying human characteristics to God is called anthropomorphism, from the Greek words anthropos (man, or human) and morphe (form).

Anthropomorphism is a tool for understanding, but a flawed tool. God is not human and does not have the features of a human body, such as a face, and while he does have emotions, they are not exactly the same as human emotions.

Although this concept can be worthwhile in aiding readers to relate to God, it can cause trouble if taken too literally.

A good study Bible provides clarification.

Did Anyone See the Face of God and Live?

This problem of seeing God's face is compounded even further by the number of Bible characters who seemed to see God yet still live. Moses is the prime example: "The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend." (Exodus 33:11, NIV)

In this verse, "face to face" is a figure of speech, a descriptive phrase that is not to be taken literally. It cannot be, for God does not have a face. Instead, it means that God and Moses shared a deep friendship.

The patriarch Jacob wrestled throughout the night with "a man" and managed to survive with an injured hip: "So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Genesis 32:30, NIV)

Peniel means "face of God." However, the "man" Jacob wrestled with was probably the angel of the Lord, a pre-incarnation Christophany, or appearance of Jesus Christ before he was born in Bethlehem. He was solid enough to wrestle with, but he was only a physical representation of God.

Gideon also saw the angel of the Lord (Judges 6:22), as did Manoah and his wife, the parents of Samson (Judges 13:22).

Isaiah the prophet was yet another Bible character who said he saw God: "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple." (Isaiah 6:1, NIV)

What Isaiah saw was a vision of God, a supernatural experience provided by God to reveal information. All of God's prophets observed these mental pictures, which were images but not physical human-to-God encounters.

Seeing Jesus the God-Man

In the New Testament, thousands of people saw the face of God in a human being, Jesus Christ. Some realized he was God; most did not.

Because Christ was fully God and fully man, the people of Israel saw only his human or visible form and did not die. Christ was born of a Jewish woman. When grown, he looked like a Jewish man, but no physical description of him is given in the gospels.

Even though Jesus did not compare his human face in any way with God the Father, he did proclaim a mysterious unity with the Father:

Jesus said to him, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? (John 14:9, NIV)

"I and the Father are one." (John 10:30, NIV)

Finally, the closest that human beings came to seeing God's face in the Bible was the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, when Peter, James, and John witnessed a majestic revelation of Jesus' true nature on Mount Hermon. God the Father masked the scene as a cloud, as he often had in the book of Exodus.

The Bible says believers will, indeed, see the face of God, but in the New Heaven and the New Earth, as revealed in Revelation 22:4: "They will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads." (NIV)

The difference will be that, at this point, the faithful will have died and will be in their resurrection bodies. Knowing how God will make himself visible to Christians will have to wait until that day.

Sources

  • Stewart, Don. “Doesn't the Bible Say People Actually Saw God?” Blue Letter Bible, www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_1301.cfm.
  • Towns, Elmer. “Has Anyone Seen God's Face?” Bible Sprout, www.biblesprout.com/articles/god/gods-face/.
  • Wellman, Jared. “What Does It Mean in Revelation 22:4 When It Says That ‘They Will See the Face of God?’” 
  • CARM.org, Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, 17 July 2017, carm.org/revelation-they-will-see-the-face-of-god.