God’s face

The comments from yesterday’s post on seeing God pushed me to ponder this question a bit more. Here are a few thoughts.

  1. When Moses asked God to draw him closer, “Now show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18), God declared “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). Then God hid Moses in a “cleft in the rock” and covered him with his hand until his glory had passed by. This text clearly indicates that no human can stand the full glare of God’s glory, simply because we are creatures. Angels have the same limitation, so the main problem is not our fallenness but our finitude.
  1. Yet earlier in the same chapter we are told that when Moses went to the Tent of Meeting, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex. 33:11). How are we to understand this?
  1. Their intimate conversation made Moses’ face glow, but it did not kill him (Ex. 34:29-35). This indicates that Moses did not receive the full intensity of God’s glory. There are two acceptable ways to take this talk of seeing God’s face, and both may be right. It may be anthropocentric language—God describing himself in words that we can understand—and/or it may describe how all knowledge of God must be mediated through creaturely forms.
  1. Regarding the latter, we have two limitations of finitude when it comes to seeing God. God is spirit, and so is invisible. God is glorious, and so must be lethal to mere creatures. We cannot stand in the unmediated presence of this being we cannot see. This is a terrible analogy, but in this way God is a bit like sarin gas. People can’t smell or see this odorless, colorless gas, yet it destroys those who inhale too much of it.
  2. Thus, even if Revelation 22:3-4 means that we shall see God’s face (rather than the Lamb’s face), this still does not mean we will look directly into God’s essence, or that we are any more advanced than Moses, who spoke face to face with God in the Tent of Meeting. All knowledge of God must be mediated, whether by God the Father putting on a face, or as Protestants prefer, making his glory visible “in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Picture by Kevin Dooley. Used  by permission. Via Flickr.






17 responses to “God’s face”

  1. Mike –
    Interesting line of thought regarding finitude. I would be interested in your understanding of Rev 7:9-17. Here are several classes of finite creatures all before the throne of God and before the Lamb, (both equally in line of sight).

  2. mikewittmer

    Bruce: I would say that is apocalyptic–so hard to know what is literal–and it is still mediated knowledge. E.g., a spirit wouldn’t sit on a throne, so the presence of a throne demonstrates God is making himself visible. Protestants have said that God the Father does not have or need a body, because God is already embodied in his Son.

  3. Mike – I love apocalyptic. It forces us to confess our limits. I’m still inclined to think, however, that God’s glory is mediated in this age (by the Son’s incarnation and since his ascension, by the Spirit’s presence) and is manifest in the age that is coming. Keep writing. I might slip into agnosticism and possibly even be converted to your position. Maybe. Possibly. 🙂

  4. Elden Stielstra

    Before the fall, what did Adam and Eve see?

  5. mikewittmer

    Okay, Bruce. But as God told Moses, be careful what you wish for. 🙂
    Elden, whatever they saw had to be mediated in physical, creaturely form, because they saw it.

  6. I am just a bit surprised that our Resurrected bodies won’t change things. Maybe it is a stretch but I offer Jesus calling the least member in the Kingdom as greater than the greatest of those born of woman, John the Baptist.

  7. jefflindell

    Mike thanks for the extra post on the subject. It was very helpful. If Revelation 22:3-4 does teach that we will see the Father’s face mediated in some way rather than that of the lamb, how would that line up with our protestant tradition of the glory being visible in the face of Christ. That’s sounds contradictory to me, but fits well with my christocentric theology. In other words how would the God’s glory be revealed in the face of Christ when it is the Father’s face being made visible rather than that of the lamb. Admittedly, given the mystery of the nature of our triune God, we may simply be grasping, but what better could we be grasping more to know than God Himself?

  8. John West

    Hi Mike,

    I like the focus on Jesus from the first post… I wonder how we might be helped here by John 14….9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority….

    There is obviously trinitarian mystery here perichoresis etc… but I would certainly want to say seeing the face of Jesus is seeing the face of God…

  9. mikewittmer

    Andy: I’m not sure how being greater in the kingdom corresponds to the ability to see God without mediation. Nothing here changes our creaturely status.

    Jeff: I don’t think I follow the second half of your comment. Could you restate that? Regarding the first part, I think it wouldn’t fit well with Protestant thought to say that we will see the face of God the Father. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it’s not what a Protestant would normally say.

    Jeff: You are right. I mentioned this in the first post, yesterday. It’s no disappointment to settle for the Son, because we see the Father through him.

  10. Thanks for replying back, Dr. Wittmer.
    If we have exhausted this topic, it is fine, but two others come to mind:, Gabriel’s response to Zechariah in Luke 1 and Stephen’s vision at his stoning.

  11. jefflindell

    I don’t see a problem personally with Christ always being the one who mediates our glimpses into the glory of the Father. In fact I can’t wait to marvel at Him when I see Him in His glory (2 Thess. 1:10) and I have no doubt seeing Him along will be enough for me (I am protestant after all :-)!

    I guess my point is that if Revelation 22:3-4 speaks to the fact that we will see the very face of the Father (even if He is mediated by taking on a face), then it seems the verses would support catholic theology more than our protestant tradition at least as far as the consummation of all things is concerned because Christ Himself would no longer be the one mediating the Father to us throughout all eternity.

    So when you wrote, “or as Protestants prefer, making his glory visible “in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)” it would seem that our tradition would be to prefer something that directly contradicts Rev. 22:3-4, would it not? Perhaps I don’t fully understand the catholic postion, but I can’t reconcile my previously protestant beliefs in light of what Rev. 22:3-4 seems to clearly teach. Does that make more sense?

  12. mikewittmer

    Jeff: I haven’t looked at Rev. 22 in the Greek yet. In English it seems like the face could belong to the Lamb. If it is the Father’s face, then that could still work for Protestants as long as the knowledge is mediated. It would be less Christ-centered then we like, but could still emphasize the mediation.

    Andy: Didn’t Stephen see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father? It could imply that he saw the Father, but not necessarily. His emphasis was on seeing Jesus.

  13. mikewittmer

    Jeff: I just looked at the Greek. After saying “the throne of God and of the lamb” shall be in it, John says “his servants will serve him (singular) and see his face (singular).” I’m surprised to see a singular pronoun after the plural subject “God and the Lamb.” Could it be that “God and the Lamb” are a singular subject? Instead of having two thrones, one for God and the Lamb, and then wondering whose face John says we will see, could it be that John means there is one throne, with the Lamb who is God sitting upon it? If he means to say two thrones, it seems more natural to think the singular pronoun would refer back to the last possible antecedent, which would be the Lamb. What am I missing?

  14. jefflindell

    Mike, I also was surprised to see the singular pronoun and wondered the same thing, though I know of no where else in the NT where a singular pronoun directly refers to the Father and the Son together, but I am still hesitant to rule it out especially given the interesting language in Rev. 21:2-3. There the new Jerusalem, the bride of Christ comes down from heaven adorned for her husband who is Christ. The wedding imagery would certainly lead us to expect a special marriage with the Son for all eternity. In verse 3, the Father then shouts, “Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people and God himself will be there God.” So is this reference to God a reference to the Son or the Father? Usually of course references to God refer to the Father, but this is the Father speaking (Heb. 1:8) so it could be the son, and the marriage context would seem to lead us to think this is the lamb.

    That said in verses 6 and 7 the Father declares of the people of God, “I will be His God and he will be my son.” Perhaps there is some trinitarian thing going on here. I mentioned at the outset that looking into Rev. 22:3-4 raised more questions for me than anything, especially with the singular throne.

    What I did discover is that there is one heavenly throne which is the throne of the Father, but Christ himself sat on it following his resurrection (Rev. 3:21). References to the throne of Christ as far as I know always point to His millennial reign with the possible exception of Hebrew 1:8 where the Father Himself says of the son, “Your throne O God is forever and ever….” As far as the book of Revelation goes, the who is seated on the throne of heaven always refers to the Father (5:1; 6:13, 16; 7:10), and He is the one who is always worshipped there. Christ is said to be seated at His right hand (perhaps on the same throne?) Thus given the context of Revelation, it would seem that the picture here is the very throne of Father coming down from heaven. Christ Himself of course now shares this throne. Thus, it would seem that the throne language would most likely point us to focus on worshipping the Father, which would lead more to a more expand translation of Rev. 22:3-4 that sounds something like this: “But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it and the servants of Christ will worship the Father.” Does that make sense? Sorry for the long answer. Any thoughts that would lead in a more Christ-centered direction?

  15. mikewittmer

    Thank you for this, Jeff. I think it’s important to remember the perichoretic unity of the persons. I don’t think Rev. 22:3-4 should be read to mean only “we worship the Father,” especially if the Lamb is right there. And because of perichoresis, he must be. I think the entire Trinity will live with us on the new earth. And while we cannot separate them, we may experience them differently. We will hear the Father’s voice and feel the Spirit’s power, but we will only see the Son. Unless the Father chooses to reveal himself through some other creaturely form (i.e., put on a face). But this would seem to be an awkward slap at the Son, who already is God in the flesh.

  16. jefflindell

    Very well said. I would agree that even if the worship mentioned in Rev. 22:3-4 is directed to the Father certainly that would not mean the Son is not worshipped. I think you make a good point as well that if the Father were to take on some sort of creaturely form that would defeat the purpose of Christ Himself eternally taking on flesh. Like you said early regarding Moses talking with God “face to face” perhaps that statement is in Rev. 22:4 is a bit symbolic, perhaps if we see anything it will be light as mentioned in 22:5. Thanks for the dialogue on this by the way.

  17. I very much appreciate the dialogue and challenge to think more deeply, historically and biblically. Thank you for all the work and time put forth on this blog post.

    I have some additional thoughts related to this topic. As I read this post (and the previous one), I get the impression that the Father is more holy than the Son. Or maybe even the Father and the Spirit are more glorious than the Son. It also seems, in reading the post, like Jesus (being in the flesh) will safeguard us from the effulgence of God’s glory – giving us a bite sized portion for eternity because we would die if we saw His glory.

    I can’t get past some of the arguments Jeff makes – especially with the Revelation passage.

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