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Seeing God

AFTER GOD RESCUED the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, he brought them to Mt. Sinai "on eagles' wings" to establish a loving covenant relationship with them (Exod 19:3-6). The covenant was ratified in a special ritual 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 covenant ceremony culminated in a memorable 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 describes what they saw as "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 gathered there might 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 recognition; God's presence sent the message that his people enjoyed his favor. His willingness to forgive the sins of the Israelites was a crucial sign of divine acceptance evidenced by the blood sprinkled as part of the covenant ceremony.

God drew near, and the Israelite leaders on the mountain had the transcendent experience of fellowship with and in his presence. Moses received even more privilege, that 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 him, 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, allowing 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. The thrill of experiencing this much of God's presence would last a lifetime for Moses.

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 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 were appearances of God the Son before his incarnation. Such occurrences are known as christophanies. This idea arose early in Christian history, beginning with Justin Martyr in 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 New Testament passages in question do not support the conclusion that all theophanies (appearances of God) in the Hebrew Scriptures are christophanies. 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 often means 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 is often 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). Verses like John 1:18 are about Jesus making God more fully understood than about God never having been manifested visually. (3)

Whatever the precise nature of God's appearances to Moses and the elders of Israel, they emphasize the consistent biblical message that the Father desires close interaction with his children. And remember this, the promise of the Gospel to believers is that of unbroken intimacy with him in the future. John reminds us how vital this hope is for faithful living today,

"See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are! The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure." (1 John 3:1-3)


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

(2) For 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.

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


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