Can We See God, or Not?
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
This question leaves far too many people scratching their heads wondering what gives. There may be no greater confusion in the Bible than that which is posed in the above cited question. Yet, the answer to this inquiry is quite simple. Understanding the use of idioms, metaphors, and other types of speech, brings immediate clarity. Of a certainty, there is no contradiction committed in the different verses detailing these events, and biblical integrity is not violated.
Exodus 24:9-11 documents one of the greatest moments ever given to a human being. Moses, along with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel, climbed Mount Sinai for the purpose of receiving continued instructions from the Lord. Their act of consecration would allow for the sealing of covenant. While on Sinai, Exodus 24:10 states that this ensemble of men “saw the God of Israel.” This seems somewhat odd when previously the congregation of Israel was prohibited from even touching the base of the mountain. Violation of that command would have ensured immediate death. Is this problematic narrative?
Several chapters later in Exodus 33, the Bible describes the actions Moses took to interact with God prior to the tabernacle of worship being constructed. Moses had erected a tent outside the encampment that was specifically built for the purpose of intercession. As he would visit this tent the validation of his efforts was visible to all the people as “the pillar of cloud would come down and stand at the entrance of the tent”, (33:9). As the people of Israel watched this phenomenon unfold, they would respond by rising up in worship.
The favor Moses enjoyed as Israel’s representative was evidenced by the fact “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend”, (33:11). The phrase “face to face” should be understood as both a metaphor and idiom. A metaphor is symbolic of something else, especially something abstract. God’s face is a metaphor. It represents His presence. An idiom is an expression designed to convey an idea. When the passage states God spoke with Moses “face to face” it is meaning theirs was an intimate relationship.
Later in chapter 33, for reasons unexplained, Moses respectfully requested to see God’s glory, (33:11). This certainly seemed to be a reasonable curiosity, all the while his desire revealing how restricted mankind is in understanding divinity. God responded by allowing Moses access to Him partially, but definitely not in His entirety. 33:19 quotes God promising Moses he will experience the Lord’s “goodness.” But, in verse 20, Moses is informed he “cannot see [God’s] face, for no man shall see me and live.” This restriction was so serious that God Himself provided a barrier for Moses in the form of His own appendage, stating, “I will cover you with my hand when I pass by.”
So, what gives here? Can a person see God or not? John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time.” Did Moses, along with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the elders of Israel see God or not? Did Moses communicate with God “face to face” or not? And, if not, what exactly is the Bible showing the reader as it pertains to the revelation of God’s person?
Human simplicity demands that God communicates with people by speaking in terms easily understood. John 4:24 teaches that God is a spirit, and does not possess physicality. Human beings are not capable of grasping the scale of all this truth involves. Only at the advent of Christ did the godhead take on fleshiness. The Apostle Paul provided an astonishing insight to this reality when he stated, “In Christ all the fullness of the godhead lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). The words Christ spoke to Philip bring this truth to the fore as He said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The earthly life of Christ was a visible expression of God, yet it veiled His full magnificence. Matthew 17:3 provides one moment of miniscule insight to who Christ really is at the Mount of transfiguration. It can be no mistake Moses was present on this occasion speaking directly to the glorified Christ.
What Moses witnessed was not the essence of God, but a representation. The Bible teaches that even the seraphim cover their eyes while they are worshipping the Almighty (Isaiah 6:2). The intrinsic nature and indispensable quality of God is not something Moses, or any being for that matter, would be able to survive. Just a limited exposure to God’s presence resulted in Moses’ face shining so brightly it required veiling. The idea that “you cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20) is simply a reference to all of God’s majesty and splendor. That is to say, the fullness of His person.