Seeing God Face to Face
I suppose that if you were to ask Christians whether or not they would like to “see” God, most would say “yes.” Human curiosity often wins out over our knowledge of biblical passages such as Hebrews 12:29, which informs us that “our God is a consuming fire.” While Scripture promises that the pure in heart will see God (Matt. 5:8), Paul makes it clear that such sight cannot come until death, when believers enter God’s presence. It is God alone who “has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). But one day — at the appearing of Jesus Christ — Paul says we will see that which our sin and finitude currently prevents us from seeing (6:14–15).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that the beatific vision (to see God as He is) is promised to Christians when Jesus returns at the end of the age: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). In Paul’s day, a mirror was formed from polished metal, usually bronze, tin, or silver. One’s reflection in such an object was dim at best. Yet Paul promises that the dim image reflecting back from polished metal will give way to a face-to-face encounter. When Jesus comes back, we will see Him with our own eyes. On that day, our imperfect knowledge will give way to sight. We will know, even as we are fully known.
While Paul directs us ahead to that glorious day when the Lord returns, the beatific vision has its roots in the Old Testament. In Genesis 32:30, we read that Jacob saw God: “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’” Moses also saw God. According to Exodus 33:11, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” The same thing is found in Deuteronomy 34:10: “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”
In the Exodus 33 passage, Moses asks to see God’s glory — a request that God graciously grants. But God must protect Moses so that Israel’s leader is not consumed. As we read in verses 18–23: “Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.’” Moses could see God’s back, but not His full glory (that is, His face).
In the New Testament, we learn that Moses and Jacob did not see God in some abstract, intangible way. As John opens his gospel, he informs us that “no one has ever seen God,” but that Jesus, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). This echoes Jesus’ statement in John 6:46: “Not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God [that is, Jesus]; he has seen the Father.” Since Jesus is God (the second person of the Trinity), He alone has seen the Father, meaning that Jacob and Moses saw the pre-incarnate Jesus, whose glory was still too great for sinful humans to see.
Just like Moses, one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, desired to see God. In John 14:8–10, we read the following exchange between Jesus and His curious, but clueless, disciple: “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?’” Since Philip had seen Jesus, Philip had already seen God. Jesus’ divine glory was veiled with human flesh. It is likely that Philip wished he could recall his question just as soon as he asked it.
But the hope remains for the people of God (those reckoned righteous through faith in Jesus) who have been rendered holy and pure of heart. For us the promise remains: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). This promise will be fulfilled on that day when Jesus Christ returns. What is now quite dim will become crystal clear. Faith will become sight.