The Face of God
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Because God is a personal being who loves us and wants us to know and love Him, He has revealed specific things about Himself to humanity through His Word. In order for Him to express to us what He is like, He communicated about Himself in terms which we could understand. Thus, when speaking to those such as Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, He spoke in words they understood, using descriptive language they could relate to.
One means of doing so was through using what are known as anthropomorphisms. Anthropomorphism is the act of attributing human characteristics to a nonhuman entity. The word anthropomorphic comes from two Greek words, one meaning “man” and the other meaning “form.” Anthropomorphism, in relation to God, refers to the attribution of human physical and emotional characteristics, as well as human experience, to Him.
For example, even though God is spirit and has no physical body, the Bible talks about His face, eyes, hands, ears, mouth, nose, lips and tongue, arms, hands, feet, voice, etc.1 He is also spoken of in terms of human experience, being described as a shepherd, bridegroom, man of war, judge, king, husband, etc.2 He is said to participate in human actions such as seeing, hearing, sitting, walking, whistling, resting, smelling, as well as knowing, choosing, and disciplining.3
Emotions that we experience as humans are attributed to Him, in that He is said to love, hate, have pleasure in, laugh, be sorry, be jealous, be angry, rejoice, and more.4 Anthropomorphisms are what God inspired the biblical writers to use to express concepts of what God is like and how we can relate to Him. While God doesn’t literally have hands, feet, ears, and eyes, such wording gives us a foundation for grasping a sense of what God is and how He relates to us.
God is spirit, and He is also personal, along with being the living God. He has the qualities of personhood, such as self-awareness, rational consciousness, self-determination, intelligence, knowledge, and will. And since human beings, who are made in the image of God, also have personhood, one of the most relatable ways for us to conceptualize God is through anthropomorphic language.
God chose to reveal Himself to humanity through the words He spoke to and through the biblical writers. In doing so, He spoke in the language and manner which they, and we who would follow them, would understand. He revealed Himself as the Living God who is personal, spirit, and invisible.—Peter Amsterdam
What seeing the face of God means in the Bible
The phrase “face of God,” as used in the Bible, gives important information about God the Father, but the expression can be easily misunderstood. This misunderstanding makes the Bible seem to contradict itself on this concept. The problem begins in the book of Exodus, when the prophet Moses, speaking with God on Mount Sinai, asks God to show Moses his glory. God warns that “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”5 God then places Moses in a cleft in the rock, covers Moses with his hand until God passes by, then removes his hand so Moses may see only his back.
Unraveling the problem begins with a simple truth: God is spirit. He does not have a body: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”6 The human mind cannot comprehend a being who is pure spirit, without form or material substance. Nothing in human experience is even close to such a being, so to help readers relate to God in some understandable way, the writers of the Bible used human attributes to speak of God. In the passage from Exodus above, even God used human terms to speak of himself. Throughout the Bible, we read of his face, hand, ears, eyes, mouth, and mighty arm.
Applying human characteristics to God is called anthropomorphism, from the Greek words anthropos (man, or human) and morphe (form). Anthropomorphism is a tool for understanding, but a flawed tool. God is not human and does not have the features of a human body, such as a face, and while he does have emotions, they are not exactly the same as human emotions…
In the New Testament, thousands of people saw the face of God in a human being, Jesus Christ. Some realized he was God; most did not. Because Christ was fully God and fully man, the people of Israel saw only his human or visible form and did not die. Christ was born of a Jewish woman. When grown, he looked like a Jewish man, but no physical description of him is given in the Gospels.
Even though Jesus did not compare his human face in any way with God the Father, he did proclaim a mysterious unity with the Father:
Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?7 … I and the Father are one.”8—Mary Fairchild9
What difference did Jesus make? Both for God and for us, He made possible an intimacy that had never before existed. In the Old Testament, Israelites who touched the sacred Ark of the Covenant fell down dead; but people who touched Jesus, the Son of God in flesh, came away healed. To Jews who would not pronounce or even spell out the letters in God’s name, Jesus taught a new way of addressing God: Abba, or “Daddy.” In Jesus, God came close…
The book of Hebrews explores this startling new advance in intimacy. First the author elaborates on what was required just to approach God in Old Testament times. Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur—could one person, the high priest, enter the Most Holy Place. The ceremony involved ritual baths, special clothing, and five separate animal sacrifices, and still the priest entered the Most Holy Place in fear. He wore bells on his robe and a rope around his ankle so that if he died and the bells stopped ringing, other priests could pull out his body.
Hebrews draws the vivid contrast: we can now “approach the throne of grace with confidence,” without fear. Charging boldly into the Most Holy Place—no image could hold more shock value for Jewish readers. Yet, at the moment of Jesus’ death, a thick curtain inside the temple literally ripped in two from top to bottom, breaking open the Most Holy Place. Therefore, concludes Hebrews, “Let us draw near to God.”…
No one in the Old Testament could claim to know the face of God. No one, in fact, could survive a direct gaze. The few who caught a glimpse of God’s glory came away glowing like extraterrestrials, and all who saw him hid in fear. But Jesus offered a long, slow look at the face of God. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” he said. Whatever Jesus is, God is. As Michael Ramsey put it, “In God is no unChristlikeness at all.”
People grow up with all sorts of notions of what God is like. They may see God as an Enemy, or a Policeman, or even an Abusive Parent. Or perhaps they do not see God at all, and only hear his silence. Because of Jesus, however, we no longer have to wonder how God feels or what he is like. When in doubt, we can look at Jesus to correct our blurry vision.—Philip Yancey
Published on Anchor October 2019. Read by Jon Marc.
1 Psalm 11:7, 4, 20:6; Isaiah 59:1.
2 Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 62:5, 33:22, 54:5.
3 Genesis 1:10; Leviticus 26:12.
4 John 3:16; Deuteronomy 16:22; Psalm 149:4, 59:8.
5 Exodus 33:20 NIV.
6 John 4:24 NIV.
7 John 14:9 NIV.
8 John 10:30 NIV.