Seeing God


by Doug Ward

After God rescued the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, he brought them "on eagles' wings" to Mt. Sinai in order to establish a loving covenant relationship with them (Exod 19:3-6). The covenant was ratified in a special ceremony in which the Israelites agreed, in response to God's gracious deliverance, to follow the commandments he had given them (Exod 24:1-8). The ceremony culminated in a memorable covenant meal attended by seventy four Israelites, including Moses, Aaron and his sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel (vv. 9-11).


A seventy-fifth personage was also present. As we read in Exodus 24:10, the participants "saw the God of Israel." Verse 11 adds that "they beheld God, and ate and drank." The text does not describe exactly what they saw, but it does say that "a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness" was located underneath God's "feet."


Two other biblical passages, Ezek 1:26 and 10:1, also refer to God's presence appearing above a sapphire structure. Ezekiel's vision included "a likeness with a human appearance" with "the appearance of fire" and "brightness all around." Ezekiel identified his vision as "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (Ezek 1:26-28).


If God's appearance at Sinai was similar to what Ezekiel saw, then the men at Sinai may have seen a bright but indistinct shape, sufficient to convey the idea that they were making their covenant with an actual person who was present with them at the meal. Sharing a meal together implied mutual acceptance, so God's presence at the meal sent the message that the Israelites enjoyed divine favor. Forgiveness of the sins of the Israelites was also symbolized by the blood sprinkled as part of the covenant ceremony.


Moses: Face to Face with God

The Israelite leaders on the mountain had the great privilege of sharing a meal in God's intimate presence. One of them, Moses, enjoyed the even greater privilege of climbing Mt. Sinai to receive further revelation from God (Exod 24:12-18). He grew closer to God over the ensuing weeks and months, and he came to be known for this close relationship. Exod 33:11 notes that "the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend." (See Num 12:6-8 and Deut 34:10 for similar statements.) Speaking "face to face" connotes direct communication with no use of intermediaries.


Along with face to face verbal communication, Moses' experience of God had a visual component that was less direct. "He beholds the form of the Lord" is the way God described it later to Aaron and Miriam (Num 12:8). As time went on Moses sought a greater visual revelation. "Please show me your glory," he requested (Exod 33:18). God honored Moses' request, but he placed limitations on what he would show Moses, explaining that "you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live" (v. 20). God would cover Moses' face with his "hand" while his glory was passing by, then allow Moses to see his "back" (vv. 22-23).


Since God is spirit (John 4:24), he does not have physical hands, face, or back, so we understand God to be speaking by analogy in these verses. As Dr. David H. Wenkel puts it, God was telling Moses about "his ability to reveal himself in shades or degrees of intensity." In this analogy God's face corresponds to his "most intense relational presence."1 Commentators have interpreted God's "back" as a kind of afterglow remaining in a place that God has just visited. Even experiencing this much of God's presence must have been the thrill of a lifetime for Moses.


Explaining New Testament Statements

Further questions arise about what Moses and the elders of Israel saw when we read in 1 John 4:12 that "no one has ever seen God." Other New Testament passages speak of God as "invisible." For example, 1 Tim 1:17 praises "the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God." Similarly, Paul in Col 1:15 describes Jesus as "the image of the invisible God."


Since it is specifically God the Father who is described in this way (John 1:18; 6:46), one possible conclusion is that the appearances of God to the patriarchs and prophets actually were appearances of God the Son before his incarnation. Such appearances are known as "christophanies." This idea arose early in Christian history, beginning with Justin Martyr in the the second century A.D., and it is still popular today. 2 It accords well with New Testament statements that the preexistent Christ acted as God's agent in the creation of the universe (John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17). Since the preincarnate Christ was involved in creation, he also may have acted in other capacities.


However, the conclusion that all the theophanies (appearances of God) in the Hebrew Scriptures are christophanies is not required by the New Testament passages in question. It turns out that the Greek word for "invisible" used in 1 Tim 1:17 and Col 1:15 does not necessarily imply that something cannot be seen. Instead, it is often used for things that are not ordinarily seen. As a result, verses that state God is invisible or has not been seen may simply be saying that God sovereignly chooses when, how, and to whom to appear, as is the case in Exod 33:18-23.


Moreover, when the New Testament speaks of God being seen, it often is a reference to God being understood or accepted rather than a reference to physical eyesight. Think, for example, of Jesus' statement that "whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). So verses like John 1:18 are about Jesus making God more fully understood rather than about God never having been manifested visually.3


Whatever the precise nature of God's appearances to Moses and the elders of Israel, the Bible is clear about God's desire for close interaction with his children. We also look forward to closer communion with him in the future. As it is written is 1 John 3:2, "We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is."


1Shining Like the Sun: A Biblical Theology of Meeting God Face to Face, Weaver Book Company, Wooster, Ohio, 2016, p. 35.


2For further discussion, see for example Christ in the Old Testament by James A. Borland, Moody Press, Chicago, 1978. Justin's arguments appear in Dialogue with Trypho, chapters 56-60, 126-129.


3On these points see "The invisibility of God: a survey of a misunderstood phenomenon" by Andrew S. Malone, Evangelical Quarterly 79 (2007), pp. 311-329.

Issue 33


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On 26 Feb 2018, 12:43.