Sometimes we need to sort out how to reconcile scripture with scripture. Recently I read some comments about whether or not a person could see God’s face, and while I have had thoughts about it over the years, I had never actually studied the issue so I decided to look at it. Many people have used the following passage to assert that no one can see God’s face. Primarily because that is plainly what the text states.
18 And he said, “Please, show me Your glory.” 19 Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” Exodus 33:18–20 (NKJV)
Yet in spite of what the passage says, we have a number of examples in scripture of people seeing Yahweh so it seems important to consider what this sentence means, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” The Hebrew word means face and a more literal translation of ‘see Me, and live’ is ‘see Me, and remain alive.’ So obviously the phrase means what it says. At the same time context is important and here it is the Father speaking, as earlier in the chapter He refers to the Angel He would send with them, a theophany of the preincarnate Jesus. We also have in Exodus 33:11 Yahweh speaking to Moses ‘face to face’ but nothing to suggest Moses was gazing on Yahweh’s face so the salient point seems to be not ‘seeing’ Yahweh’s face fully revealed. Still later where we have the prohibition against seeing Yahweh’s face, Moses is allowed to gaze at Yahweh’s back (33:20-23, 34:5-7).
Now, we will ‘look’ at some examples from scripture of individuals seeing God. Clearly, prior to Moses there was an awareness of the danger of seeing Yahweh based on Jacob’s comment.
30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:30 (NKJV)
We have the same concern generations after Moses with Isaiah’s response to his revelation and encounter with Yahweh.
5 So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.” Isaiah 6:5 (NKJV)
Ezekiel gives us a fuller description of what he saw in one of his encounters.
1 And it came to pass in the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house with the elders of Judah sitting before me, that the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there. 2 Then I looked, and there was a likeness, like the appearance of fire – from the appearance of His waist and downward, fire; and from His waist and upward, like the appearance of brightness, like the color of amber. 3 He stretched out the form of a hand, and took me by a lock of my hair; and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven, and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the north gate of the inner court, where the seat of the image of jealousy was, which provokes to jealousy. 4 And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the plain. Ezekiel 8:1–4 (NKJV)
Jacob asserted that he saw God’s face, Isaiah didn’t specify His face but seemed aware of the issue with his ‘woe is me’ when he saw Yahweh. In Ezekiel, Yahweh is presented as the Spirit and what Ezekiel sees is a fiery body and an amber countenance. No features are described. The one we need to explain is Jacob. Genesis 32:24 states that Jacob “wrestled with a Man” (the capitalization indicating deity). This would have been the preincarnate Jesus, another theophany. We also know that what Isaiah saw was the preincarnate Jesus because John has Jesus sharing that in his gospel.
37 But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, 38 that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, Lest they should see with their eyes, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.” 41 These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him. John 12:37–41 (NKJV)
The way we can reconcile these seeming contradictions is that Jacob and Isaiah saw the preincarnate Jesus, not the Father. What Ezekiel saw is the only instance in all of scripture where I can find the Holy Spirit described. So not only is there no clear ‘seeing’ of His face, it is not the Father.
When we move beyond the Old Testament warning to the New Testament, we get a fuller ‘picture’ of the solution to seeing His face. In Revelation 1:14-17 John sees Jesus’ glory unveiled and described His eyes and countenance. Meaning the face of Jesus in His unveiled glory can be seen. In Revelation 4 we have the throne room described and it is similar to Ezekiel’s visions with no clear description of the face on the One on the throne. We know it is not Jesus on the throne as the scene continues into chapter 5 and there Jesus is revealed as the Lamb who takes the scroll from the one on the throne (Revelation 5:6-7).
We can thus conclude from these scriptures that no one have ever gazed fully on the unveiled face of the Father and that is what the phrase, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” references. Meaning that based on scripture we are free to seek Jesus’ face and to encounter the Spirit and the Father in our pursuit of His presence.