DID MOSES ACTUALLY SEE GOD?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 4:56pm
QUESTION: Did Moses actually see God, as Exodus 33:18 – 34:8 seems to suggest? How is this consistent with John 1:18, which says, “No one has seen God at any time”?
ANSWER: One attribute of God is that he is invisible. One way to understand this is the fact that “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and spiritual essence of all kinds (human, angelic, divine) is naturally invisible to mortal, material eyes. We cannot see even our own spirits, much less God’s divine essence.
It is true, though, that God has sometimes chosen to make his presence known among men by inhabiting a specially-prepared material entity that human eyes can see. This phenomenon is called a theophany, a word from the Greek meaning “an appearance of God.” Sometimes this theophany was a human form (e.g., Gen. 3:8; 18:1), and sometimes not (Exod. 13:21-22; Luke 3:22). Many people saw these visible forms, but these forms should not be identified or equated with the pure essence of God.
God is invisible not just because he is spirit, however. This attribute of the divine nature is also the result of the fact that God’s essence is uncreated and transcendent. I.e., as uncreated being God is radically different from all created stuff, even the created substance from which angelic bodies are made, and from which our own spirits are made. God’s essence is thus invisible to all created beings, including angels, and including ourselves when we shall be in the presence of God in his heavenly glory.
But, do not angels exist in the presence of God now, and do they not see him? Will we not see him some day (Matt. 5:8; Rev. 21:3)? My answer is no, we created beings—angelic and human—have never seen and never will see the pure, uncreated essence of God. What the angels see is a permanent spiritual theophany in which God makes himself visible to anyone in the angelic world. God has claimed a part of the angelic universe as his visible throne room, where angels can constantly see him (in his theophanic form), seated on a throne in majestic glory.
On rare occasions some human beings have been allowed the privilege of seeing into the angelic world and into the throne room of God therein; thus they have briefly seen this permanent, constant spiritual theophany that angels see all the time. See Exodus 24:9-11; Isaiah 5:1-5; Revelation 4:2-3.
One of the greatest blessings of our ultimate heavenly home—the new earth—is the fact that God will dwell among us in a glorious theophany similar to the one with which he blesses the angelic world even now. See Revelation 21 and 22. But it will indeed be a theophany, not the pure essence of God. Why? Because God is invisible by nature to created beings.
I will now summarize the Biblical teaching about this inherent invisibility of God. The most important passage is 1 Timothy 6:16, which says that God “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” This last point is crucial: no man CAN see God. This is not just because God does not LET us see him; it is because it is inherently impossible. Paul also describes God as “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Tim. 1:17); and as “the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Romans 1:20 speaks of “His invisible attributes.” No man has seen God (John 1:18; 5:37; 1 John 4:12); all events suggesting otherwise should be regarded as theophanies.
So where does this leave us with Moses, and the narrative in Exodus 33:18 – 34:8? This episode began when Moses spoke this audacious prayer to God: “I pray You, show me Your glory!” (33:18). Now, Moses had already seen theophanies of God (Num. 12:8), even in the form of the heavenly presence (Exod. 24:1-11). So what could be the point of Moses’ prayer here on this occasion? It is reasonable to assume that he is now asking for something more, i.e., he asking to see God not just in a theophany, not even the glorious spiritual theophany of heaven itself. He is asking to see the very divine essence of God in his pure glory.
This is why God says it is impossible: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (33:20). In this case “face” means “presence”; i.e., you cannot see the divine presence itself. But even though Moses’ prayer cannot be answered in the way Moses is hoping, God does grant him what is apparently a one-of-a-kind experience. He says to Moses, I will place you in a crevice in the rock and cover it with my hand, then I will allow my glory to pass by the crevice. Then I will take away my hand—“and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (33:21-23). It is generally agreed that “My back” refers not to a bodily part of God (since he does not have a literal body), but to the after-effects or the residue or the wake left by the passing-by of God’s unapproachable glory. This is not the same as a direct viewing of the essence of God in himself (which is impossible anyway), but it is no doubt as close as any creature has come to seeing the actual being of God.
The remarkable thing about this whole episode is that God would choose to answer such a presumptuous prayer at all! It is in this context that God made this theologically pregnant statement: “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (33:18-19). Calvinists try to interpret the latter part of this statement as a prooftext for unconditional election, i.e., God’s choosing whom he will save and whom he will reject. The context shows, however, that God’s gracious and compassionate choice here is not about salvation at all, but about God’s sovereign prerogative in answering prayer.
In other words, God’s references here to grace and compassion are not about soteriological (saving) grace, but about his sovereignty in deciding whom he will bless and whom he will not bless, or what prayers he will answer and what prayers he will not answer. As we saw, Moses has put some strong pressure on God to grant a presumptuous request. So God is replying, in effect, “All right, I will do what you ask, though it is highly unusual. And I want you to know that I am not doing this just because you have won an argument with me or have backed me into a corner. I am granting your request because I want to. I still decide what prayers I will answer and whom I will bless.”
See my discussion of God’s invisibility in my book, What the Bible Says About God the Creator (1983), 222-233; and my discussion of God’s conversation with Moses in What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer (1986), 362-365).