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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Personal Attributes of God

Don Stewart :: Doesn't the Bible Say That People Actually Saw God?

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Doesn’t the Bible Say That People Actually Saw God?

The Personal Attributes of God – Question 22

There are several passages of Scripture that seem to indicate people actually saw God. What are we to make of these episodes? Did God actually become visible for them?

We can make the following observations about these passages.

1. Jacob at Peniel

The Bible says that the patriarch Jacob actually saw God face to face at a place called Peniel. The Bible says,

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:30 NKJV)

Here Jacob is said to have seen God “face to face.”

2. Moses at the Burning Bush and Other Occasions

The Bible says that Moses saw God on a number of separate occasions.

At the burning bush, the Bible says the following transpired.

Then he [God] said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:6 NIV)

On this occasion, Moses did not want to look at God face to face so he hid his face from the Lord.

Scripture declares that Moses often spoke to the Lord face-to-face as one would speak to a friend. We read about this in Exodus.

Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent. (Exodus 33:11 NRSV)

Moses was in a unique position with respect to seeing God.

At the end of the Book Deuteronomy, when summing up the life of Moses, we also read about Moses knowing God face to face. Scripture says,

No prophet has arisen again in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10 HCSB)

In each of these three passages, it says that Moses actually saw God.

3. Isaiah

Isaiah the prophet records himself seeing God. He recorded what occurred as follows.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. (Isaiah 6:1 NIV)

Isaiah said that he saw the Lord in His Holy Temple.

They Did Not Actually See God: No One Is Able to See God

Did these people actually see God? No. What these people saw was not the essence of God, but rather a physical representation of Him. As spirit, God is invisible to humanity. No one can see Him directly.

The Apostle Paul, in explaining the character of Jesus, had this to say about God.

He is the image of the invisible God... (Colossians 1:15a NASB).

God is invisible. This means that He cannot be seen with the human eye. Though God, in His essence, is invisible, He has taken a physical form on occasions to communicate with His creation. He did this for the benefit of those to whom He was speaking. The physical form gave humanity a point of reference to which they could communicate with God.

But that which the people saw was not the essence of God, for no one has seen or can see God in His essence. John wrote,

No one has ever seen God. God’s only Son, the one who is closest to the Father’s heart, has made him known. (John 1:18 God’s Word)

Note that John says nobody has ever seen God. Nobody.

In fact, the Apostle Paul wrote that it is not possible for humans to be in God’s holy presence. To Timothy, he said the following about the Lord.

It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:16 NRSV)

Nobody has seen God neither is anyone able to see God. He dwells in light which is unapproachable. Consequently, sinful humanity does not have access to a holy God. We cannot see Him in His essence.

Therefore, these Old Testament passages that speak about seeing God do not refer to actually seeing Him in His essence. From the statements of the New Testament writers, we find that they did not understand the experiences of Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah as actually seeing God.

How Will Believers See God in Heaven?

If we cannot see God, then how are we to understand certain promises of Scripture that speak of seeing God? Jesus said,

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8 KJV)

Jesus promised that we would see God.

In the Book of Revelation we also read about believers seeing the face of God in heaven. It says the following.

...they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:4 NRSV)

This is another promise that we will see His face.

The Apostle John agreed with this. He wrote that there will come a day when we believers will see Him exactly as He is.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 NRSV)

This is another indication that we will one day see God.

These passages promise a number of things. First, we are promised that we will see God. We are also promised that we will see Him exactly as He is. Scripture also says that that we will see Him “face to face.” How are we to understand these statements? Will we have abilities in our new bodies that allow us to actually see God’s essence?

The simple answer to this question is that these promises are not to be understood in a literal sense. For one thing, God does not have a face. Therefore, we will not be able to see Him “face to face” as we see other humans. What is promised is that we will be able to be in God’s presence and see Him for what He is; the majestic and holy God. It is impossible for us now to be in His presence because of our sinful nature.

When our bodies have been transformed into bodies without sin and corruption we will then be able to be in His presence. The Bible promises that this transformation will happen. The Apostle Paul wrote,

But let me tell you a wonderful secret God has revealed to us. Not all of us will die, but we will all be transformed. It will happen in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, the Christians who have died will be raised with transformed bodies. And then we who are living will be transformed so that we will never die. For our perishable earthly bodies must be transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die. When this happens—when our perishable earthly bodies have been transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die—then at last the Scriptures will come true: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NLT)

While believers will then be able to be in the actual presence of God, the Bible does not explain what exactly we will literally see of God’s Person. This is one of the many exciting things that await those who have believed in Christ!

In sum, while the Bible says that certain people saw God what they actually saw was a representation of His Person. God is invisible to humanity.

Summary – Question 22
Doesn’t the Bible Say That People Actually Saw God?

During the Old Testament period, there are a number of episodes recorded for us where it seems that God appeared to certain people in a physical form. This includes Moses, Jacob, and Isaiah.

For example, the patriarch Jacob was also said to have seen the Lord. In fact, he named the place in a manner which reflected his seeing the Lord “face to face.”

The Lord also appeared to Moses in the burning bush as well as upon a number of other occasions. Indeed, Scripture summarized the life of Moses by saying that he was in a unique position in that he was able to see the Lord “face to face.”

Isaiah the prophet also testified to “seeing the Lord.”

Did these people actually see God?

They did not. The form what each of them saw was not the essence of God but rather a physical representation of God for their benefit. Nobody has seen God, or can see God for.

Indeed, by nature, He is an invisible spirit. This means that humans do not have the capability of seeing Him in these sinful bodies.

What about in the future when we have new bodies? Will we then be able to actually see God? We find that Jesus promised that those who believe in Him will one day be able to “see” God. Other passages speak of seeing God face-to-face.

However, these promises are not to be understood in a literal sense. We will see God as He is in the sense that we will be able to be in His presence. This is impossible now because our sinful nature does not allow us to be in the presence of a Holy God.

While in the future we will be able to be in His presence with our glorified bodies it seems that we will still be unable to see the true essence of God. Consequently, the Bible does not explain what sense we will be able to literally see the invisible God in the afterlife.

However, the fact that we will be able to be in His Holy presence should more than satisfy us.

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