Friend: Face to Face with God
Question: No man has seen God at any time (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). However, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:30). Moses said the Lord spoke to him “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Moses, Aaron, Nadab & Abihu, and 70 elders said they saw the God of Israel (Ex. 24:9). Please explain.
In modern times, we tend to use words and phrases in many different senses. Likewise, in Scripture words and phrases are often used in a variety of ways. With that in mind, consider that the gospel of John says that Jesus, the Word, was God (John 1:1). John then said that Jesus, the Word, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14)…but then just a few sentences later said that “no man has seen God at any time” (v. 18; 1 John 4:12).
Was Jesus God? Yes. Did man see Jesus? Yes. So in what sense has man not seen God?
The Bible says that God is spirit (John 4:24). Jesus is God, but no man has ever seen Jesus in his true image as a spirit Being, in all of his fullness, glory, and splendor. Paul told the Philippians in Phil. 2:6-7 – “who, though (Christ Jesus) was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
When God the Word, Jesus Christ, appeared on Earth two thousand years ago, he came in a veiled form. He had existed in heaven “in the form of God,” but made himself nothing and took on “the likeness of man.” So when mankind saw Jesus, they saw an embodiment of deity in the form of a man…the Word who became flesh. Likewise, when Jacob struggled with God in Genesis 32, he saw only a form of God…not the spiritual, invisible, omnipresent God who fills heaven and earth.
But what about those statements which indicate that man saw or spoke to God “face to face”? Remember, Moses and Jacob and others who made those statements, while they witnessed great and awesome things, still only saw manifestations of God and a part of his glory, not the fullness of his glory.
God specifically said as much in Exodus 33:18-23 when Moses asked God to show him his glory. God replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you…but…you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” God then put Moses in a cleft in the rock and covered him with his hand until he had passed by. Then God took away his hand, and Moses saw his back, but not his face. Moses saw a manifestation of God, part of his glory, but not the fullness of his glory.
Remember also that the terms “face” and “face to face” are used in different senses in Scripture. Exodus 33:11 says that God spoke to Moses “face to face,” but just nine verses later God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live.” Was the author of Exodus so misguided that he contradicted himself in the same paragraph? Not when we realize that these terms are being used in different senses, in different ways.
Numbers 12 shows us the difference. In Numbers 12 Aaron and Miriam had complained about Moses and arrogantly asked, “Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (v. 2) God then appeared to Aaron and Miriam. Notice what he said to them in vs. 6-8: “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. I speak with him face to face, even PLAINLY, and NOT IN DARK SAYINGS (RIDDLES).”
Notice the contrast. God spoke with the prophets through visions and dreams, but to Moses he spoke not in dark riddles, but plainly, directly. In other words, God…who never showed his face to Moses, nevertheless allowed Moses to see some unmistakable evidence of his glorious presence by letting him see his back, and spoke to him “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11), in other words, plainly, directly. That’s what “face to face” means.
Look at it this way. If you can work “side by side” with someone without literally working inches from him, and if you can see “eye to eye” with someone without ever literally looking into their eyes, then God can speak “face to face” with Moses without literally revealing to him his full, glorious, spiritual “face.”