A Biblegems reader sent in the following:
John 1:18 states that no one has seen the Face of God. Yet in Exodus 33:11 it says that Moses spoke face-to-face with God like a man talks with a friend. Then Exodus 33:23 says that God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, and as He passed by Moses saw His back. Then, another place in Exodus talks about Moses’ face shining after his face-to-face encounter with God. How can those verses be compatible?
John 1:18 actually reads, “No one has ever seen God.” The generic Greek term for God (theon) is used, which would be equivalent to our English word, “deity.” It refers to God’s nature as a spiritual being. The meaning in John is that God is invisible to the physical eye because He is Spirit.
Exodus 33:11, however, does use the phrase “face to face” in describing Moses’ conversations with God. And Exodus 33:23 speaks of God removing His hand that prevents Moses from seeing the Lord’s face when He passes by, so that Moses will only be able to see God’s “back.” How does all this fit with the Bible’s clear teaching that God is spirit (see Jn. 4:24)?
The answer is three-fold.
First, when describing God, the Bible often uses figures of speech known as anthropomorphisms. An anthropomorphism is applying human characteristics to God, even though God is neither human nor physical, to help us understand God’s actions and character as if He were human. Exodus 6:6, for example, says that God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt with an “outstretched arm.”
Second, God at times reveals Himself in Scripture through the Angel of the Lord. Usually—but not always— when this is the case, the Angel of the Lord is identified as such. A good example of this is when the Angel of the Lord tells Abraham: “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count” (Gen. 16:10). Obviously the angel is not the one who will give descendants to Abraham, but he is speaking on God’s behalf and with God’s authority.
Third, God has revealed Himself to people in the Bible in human form. This is called a theophany. Genesis 17:1 says, When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.
When God reveals Himself in the Old testament in human form, or as the Angel of the Lord, He is providing a physical appearance for interaction with human beings who otherwise could not look on the “face” of God and survive the experience.
It is for this very reason that God finally revealed Himself in Jesus:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Heb 1:1-3a).