How can it be that so many, including the leaders of Israel, saw ? There are undeniable passages in the New Testament, spoken by Jesus Himself, that no one has seen God. “No one has seen God at any time,” (John 1:18). “And the Father Himself, […] You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form,” (John 5:37). In Exodus 33:20 YHWH said: “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” How do we explain these clear passages in light of the many times that prophets have seen God including Exodus 24:9 “and they saw the God of Israel”? Do we have contradictions in the Bible?
When Jesus is saying that no one has seen God, He is referring to two things: Firstly, no one had seen the Father but they were obviously able to look upon Jesus, who was the Word made Flesh, that is, the Second person of the Triune God. This is why Jesus responds to Philip by saying: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9).
According to Jesus, if we have seen Jesus we have seen the Father. Secondly, no one has or can see God in all of His glory. Moses came the closest to it when God hid him in the cleft of the rock and then passed by allowing Moses to see His “afterwards” (that which came after Him). Thus, it was understood that no one could see God’s face, in all of His glory. Therefore when Moses makes the request (in light of his close relationship with God) for God to show him His glory God says:
So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen, (Exodus 33:22-23).
The fact that the prophets did in fact see God’s face and live and yet Moses could not is due to the fact that the prophets saw a vision of God and Moses was in God’s very presence. The difference could be likened to a person getting in a spaceship and flying to the sun versus examining the sun through a computer screen or virtual reality. If the person in the spaceship gets too close he will burn up because the heat and energy is too great. However, the sun can be studied in great detail if one uses a camera and projects the image via television or a computer screen. In fact the meaning of television conveys the idea of what was happening for the prophet. The Online Etymological Dictionary defines television as: “the action of seeing by means of Hertzian waves or otherwise, what is existing or happening at a place concealed or distant from the observer’s eyes.” [i] Therefore, God’s face was possible to see causing Isaiah to declare: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). However, to actually be in God’s presence was just not possible not even for someone as close to God as Moses. Therefore the prophet’s experience was very much like a virtual reality experience where the “seer” sees and can even interact with the things on the screen, but is not bodily there.
When God visits earth in the Tanakh (Old Testament), He comes as a Christophany – that is, Jesus is actually the one being seen and not the Father. Consider just a few examples in which the Angel of the Lord is also called God. These serve to show us that while God the Son has been seen, God the Father has not been. This is consistent with Jesus’ words: “Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him,” (Matthew 11:27).
And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire [b’labat esh בְּלַבַּת־אֵשׁ] [note: Jesus appeared in a flame and not as a flame] from the midst of a bush. […] So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Moreover He said, “I am the God of your father–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God, (Exodus 3:2, 4-6).
The angel of the Lord in the Tanakh is the Second person of the Trinity, Jesus. Thus, of the many places where he makes an earthly appearance, the viewer was not seeing God the Father, but God the Son. Let’s continue our investigation with Gideon who was visited by the Angel of the Lord:
And the Angel of the LORD [יְהוָה] appeared to him, and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor!” […] And the LORD said to him, “Surely I will be with you, […]“ Then he said to Him, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who talk with me. […] Then the Angel of the LORD put out the end of the staff that was in His hand, […] and fire rose out of the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened bread. […] Now Gideon perceived that He was the Angel of the LORD. So Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord GOD! For I have seen the Angel of the LORD face to face.” Then the LORD said to him, “Peace be with you; do not fear, you shall not die,” (Judges 6:12-17, 20-23).
Once Gideon realized that he had just seen the angel of the LORD (YHWH) face to face he became terrified to the point of death. The LORD, the very one that he had just had the encounter with, then calms him stating that he would not die. Gideon did in fact see God – and in fact even saw the face of the LORD, according to the text. However, the LORD in this instance, just like in Exodus three and many other passages, is not God the Father, but is a Christophany – that is an appearance of the pre-incarnate Jesus. Thus, it was possible to see God so long as that was God the Son and not God the Father and so Jesus’ declarations are true (as He said in Matthew 11:27).
Paul elaborates on Jesus being the:
Whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them, (2 Corinthians 4:4).
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, (Colossians 1:15,).
From these verses we see that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Understanding the triune nature of God is challenging for us and various illustrations have been suggested to understand how that can be. Some suggest the three parts of the egg: shell, white and yolk. Others suggest the three phases of water: ice, water and steam. While both of those give a minor glimpse, they break down quickly and tend to confuse the nature of God. God does not exist in different phases nor is He dissect-able.
The Nicene CreedWhile no illustration is perfect, we might do well to consider the sun as analogous to the triunity of God. We can think of the sun as three in one: The sphere or ball of the sun is likened to the Father, the light rays to the Lord Jesus and the heat to the Holy Spirit. The sun itself is the source of light and without which no light would emit. However, at the same it is impossible to imagine the sun without light and heat proceeding from it. If it were not for the light the sphere of the sun would be invisible. It is precisely the light which allows us to see the sphere or ball of the sun. In a parallel manner, Paul tells us that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Without Jesus, we could not see God the Father; but also as the light is generated from the sphere of the sun, so too Jesus is generated from the Father. That is not to make Jesus created, however. To carry our illustration further proves that the sun could not at any point in its history have existed without emitting light and energy. Thus, the light that comes from the sun is co-equal in origin to the sun. Of course, God has no beginning and hence neither does Jesus. The Holy Spirit represented by the heat is analogous to the light; just as the sun emits light, it also emits heat. The heat is dependent on the (ball of the) sun itself but it is impossible to divorce the ball of the sun from the heat that it emits.
The Nicene Creed codified this concept in an effort to clarify the nature of God:
|We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord,, the only Son [μονογενη] of God, eternally begotten [γεννηθέν] of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten [γεννηθέντα], not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. [...] We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. [...] [ii]||Πιστεύομεν εις ένα Θεον Πατερα παντοκράτορα, ποιητην ουρανου και γης, ορατων τε πάντων και αορατων. Και εις ένα κύριον Ιησουν Χριστον, τον υιον του θεοθ τον μονογενη, τον ει του πατρος γεννηθέν τα προ πάντων των αιώνων, φως εκ φωτος, θεον αληθινον εκ θεου αληθινου,γεννηθέντα, ου ποιηθέντα, ομοουσιον τωι πατρί· δι’ ου τα παντα εγένετο· […] Και εις το Πνευμα, το Άγιον, το κύριον, (και) το ζωοποιόν, το εκ του πατρος εκπορευόμενον [coming out of], το συν πατρι και υιωι συν προσκυνούμενον και συν δοξαζόμενον. [iii]|
The Greek text demonstrates this understanding by the use of the words “eternally begotten of the Father” [gennethen ta pro panton ton aionon γεννηθέν τα προ πάντων των αιώνων]. The root of the word “begotten” has to do with human fathers engendering (generating) children. So just what is meant by that in relation to Jesus? In light of the clear statement that He is “God from God” we can go back to our sun illustration to help us grasp the concept. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. It is only through the light of the sun that we can see the sun. So too with Jesus, only through Him can we see the Father. Jesus then is the eternally generated from the Father. Thus He is dependent on the Father but still without a beginning. He is co-eternal and is the image by which the Father is manifested. [iv]
[ii] International Consultation on English Texts translation as printed in: The Lutheran Book of Worship, The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal).
[iii] The Greek Church Greek text from the Acts of the First Council of Constantinople and in The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon. Retrieved March 13, 2010 from: http://www.creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm.
[iv] Therefore when God the Father declares concerning the Son: “You [are] My Son, Today I have begotten You” (Psalms 2:7), we can understand that God is in the eternal now and hence He is eternally begetting the Son.