There’s something profound about the human face. From our earliest days as babies, we want to look at and understand other human faces. We want to see people’s faces when we talk to them or when they talk to us. Our most treasured art pieces, whether photos, drawings, paintings, or sculpture, are either focused on human faces or prominently include faces. We even can’t help seeing traces of the human face in certain animals (like dogs and cats) and inanimate objects (like electrical outlets).
But why are we so drawn to the human face?
Seeing Is Knowing
I’m sure there are many possible answers, but one answer that stands out to me is that faces provide fundamental insight into the inner person. After all, faces are extremely expressive. A face looks, speaks, snorts, smiles, laughs, cries, grimaces, and much more to communicate. Probably the reason we want to see and understand faces is because we want to see and understand people. God made us relational beings (Gen 1:26-27), and seeing a person’s face is key for knowing and relating to that person. When we cannot see a person’s face, or when we see a face that does not look at all human (like the face of a bug), we feel distance, discomfort, and even outright fear. Even if we come to know someone by some indirect means (like by letter or email), we probably won’t feel like we fully know that person until we see his face.
Seeing Is Forbidden
Considering our desire to know others by seeing their faces, God’s declaration to Moses regarding Gods’ face in Exodus 33:20 is powerful and startling. In the context, Moses has just seen God’s incredible mercy toward Israel displayed in not destroying them for their golden calf rebellion but instead forgiving their sin and continuing to lead them as their God. Moses therefore expresses his desire to know God and even to see God’s glory (Ex 33:13, 18). God graciously grants Moses’ request, yet with one caveat:
Exodus 33:20, 23, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!…You shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”
Moses was allowed to see God’s glory, but he wasn’t allowed to see “Me”—he could not know God in a full way by seeing God’s face. This is not God being antisocial; actually, this is for Moses’ protection! God says that no one can see God’s face and live. The bright holiness of God seen most awesomely in his face would overwhelm and destroy any human person, so God keeps his face unseen (cf. Ex 34:30, 34-35). Thus, while necessary, the inability to see God’s face fundamentally distances man from God and inhibits our knowing him fully.
Seeing Is Desired
Nevertheless, the longing to see God’s face—and more specifically, to experience his shining face of favor and grace and not his face of wrath—is expressed many times in the OT (e.g Num 6:25; Ps 27:8; Hos 5:15). Though God’s saints know that they cannot see God’s face, they want to do so, because they want to know him (Jer 9:23-24).
Yet how fearful is the thought of actually seeing the face of God! When Isaiah and Ezekiel are granted their visions of God in heaven, neither can bear to look at God’s face. Isaiah, in simply seeing God’s throne and robe, cries out in holy fear, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!” (Isa 6:5), while Ezekiel, in daring to look at God’s burning, outlined form on God’s throne, finds himself on the ground and unable to rise (Ezek 1:26-28).
Seeing Is Promised
However, if we fast-forward to the book of Revelation, we see another vision of God in heaven via the apostle John, a vision similar to previous ones yet importantly different. John reports seeing an awesome being “like a son of man” (Rev 1:13; cf. Ezek 1:26), whose feet “were like burnished bronze, when it was made to glow in a furnace” (Rev 1:15; cf. Ezek 1:27), and who is emanating glorious light (Rev 1:16; cf. Ezek 1:27-28).
Yet there is something new in the description, for John records the view of this being’s face: “His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire,” and, “His face was like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev 1:14, 16). The effect of this awesome vision is the same on John as it was the previous prophets: “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man” (Rev 1:17). But then something happens that never happened previously: “And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” (Rev 1:17-18).
Consider the awesomeness of what John experienced! John not only saw God in his glory, but John even looked at God’s face and felt his touch without being consumed!
But there is a further wonder: John will not be the only one to experience such a vision, for Revelation 22:3-4 says of the new heavens and the new earth:
There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads.
Amazingly, John writes that seeing God’s face and dwelling in his presence will be the inheritance of all God’s bond-servants, that is, all his redeemed believers.
How can this be, in light of what God declared to Moses about the face of God in ancient days?
Seeing Is Granted
The answer is found in what we were looking at together on Sunday from John 1:1-18. God has accomplished a mighty change in history that has enabled his people to see his face, even to truly know him: God sent his Son, his supreme Word, Jesus, into the world. This Word came not only to save us from our sin but to show us God in the only way we could handle: in a human face. Thus, when we look at the face of God in Jesus, we are not overwhelmed and destroyed by the fundamental otherness of God. Rather, we see in Jesus a face we recognize: one of us.
The glorious otherness of God is by no means lost in the humanity of Jesus (hence John’s overwhelmed reaction in Revelation 1), but because the God-man Jesus has fully accomplished redemption for us, we can behold and even dwell with God forever without fear (cf. Rev 1:17-18).
Truly, who is like the Lord our God, working wonders? (Ex 15:11)
Questions to Consider:
1. Jesus did not display the visible splendor of his heavenly glory while on earth (except at the transfiguration, Mt 17:2), so in what sense did John and the other eyewitnesses of Jesus behold the “fullness” of the grace and glory of God?
2. What did it cost God to show his face to us in a way that we can handle? What does this cost show us about God?
3. What would God think of our ignoring or treating with contempt the unveiling of his face in Jesus Christ?