The Scripture states that some men of the Old Testament era saw God face to face. The special list includes people like Jacob (Gen. 32:30), Moses (Ex. 33:11), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:28). Likewise, the elders of Israel also saw God on the mountain (Ex.24:9-11). Even during our times, many claim to have seen God with their own eyes. However, the New Testament seems to contradict this phenomenon. For instance, Jesus said, “No one has ever seen God.” (Jn.1:18). Paul echoed the same essence, “No one has ever seen him, nor can anyone see him.” (I Tim.6:16). So, what is the truth? Is it possible for anyone to see God face to face?
An answer to this question depends on how we interpret the word ‘see’ and the phrase ‘face to face.’ Confusion arises when we take these words in a literal sense, ignoring the fact that these are special terms used by biblical authors to highlight intimate God-human encounters or experiences. For instance, Israel’s elders in Ex. 24 saw God wherein they ‘sensed’ a divine presence on that mountain. There is nothing in the passage to suggest that they saw a physical form of God. Similarly, Isaiah and Ezekiel saw God but the related passages suggest that they saw a ‘vision’ not a real image.
How about Moses talking ‘face to face’ with God? Moses had a unique closeness with God, which is expressed by the phrase ‘face to face.’ Clearly, this phrase cannot be taken literally. Paul says in Rom. 16.4 that some ‘laid down their necks’ for him. Literally, this means they cut off their necks for Paul. But actually (contextually) it means they risked their lives for Paul. So a ‘face to face’ conversation would simply mean a personal conversation not a literal face to face physical meeting. Similarly, Ex. 33:18 tells us that Moses saw God’s back. This word God’s ‘back’ in the original Hebrew can be translated as the ‘after effects’ of God’s glory. Let me explain. Moses requested God to show his glory, which God denied. However, when His glory had gone past, God allowed Moses to view the results that his glory had produced. Now, the ‘after effects’ might have been a bright light or a thunderous sound or a strong breeze. I am not sure. The biblical author simply describes this supernatural effect as God’s back.
We know that we can ‘hear’ from God without hearing an audible voice. We know that we can be ‘led’ by the Spirit without being physically dragged by him. Likewise, seeing God need not mean literal seeing. Remember, God is Spirit (Jn.4:24) and He is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17, 6:16). No one has ever seen him or will (Jn.1:18). This is the clear teaching of the Bible. However, God can manifest his presence in such a way we can ‘sense’ him or if needed express his nearness to us through a vision!
Answered by Michael Thomasraj, Bangalore.