Seeing the Face of God
You know how it is when you wish you’d said something, but you think of it too late. Last summer I was doing open air preaching with a team in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. I’d started to speak in the square, a young man had stopped to argue and before long a crowd had gathered. You can’t trust the Bible, he said, it’s full of contradictions. A starting point we’ve all heard before. But, unusually, he had come prepared with an example. And another man in the crowd agreed with him and could even quote chapters and verses. You can’t trust the Bible, they said. God says in one place that you can’t see his face and live. And yet the Bible tells us elsewhere of people who do see God’s face and yet live. The Bible is full of contradictions!
First of all there’s Exodus 33v20, God speaking to Moses: “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
But back in Genesis 32v30, and, as my friends with the contradictions pointed out, only one book earlier, we read: So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
Surely that’s a clear contradiction? On the one side God tells Moses that no human being can see him and survive the experience. Even Moses himself, whom God has chosen to speak to, and to reveal his law to his nation, isn’t allowed to see God’s face. And on the other hand you have Jacob, a man with a messed up life if ever there was one, who tells us he’s seen God face to face, and comments that he’s still alive to tell the tale.
So on that day in Bournemouth I started off to explain that you need to look at the context, that Moses has asked to see God in all his glory, while Jacob sees him appear as a man, and so on.
It wasn’t until afterwards that it hit me – my explanation, however accurate, really was missing the point. Surely there is a contradiction, if you like, or perhaps better, a contrast, that runs through the whole story of the Bible: man cannot be with God, and yet God finds a way to reveal himself to the most broken; man cannot see God’s face, and yet God speaks to sinful men face to face and their lives are delivered. And isn’t that contrast what the Bible is really all about? Without intending to, my heckler had put his finger on the heart of the gospel.
And as I thought about it, and started to search through the Bible, it really hit me just how big a topic this was. This contrast is not just a handy way of describing God’s grace; the subtitle of the whole Bible could be How Man Can See the Face of God. This is how the story starts in the Garden of Eden, it’s how it finishes in the new creation. It’s what’s at stake in all the history of Israel and the focus of all God’s prophets. It’s the reason Jesus came and died on the cross, and it’s God’s purpose for us as his people, now and forever.
And it’s not just people we meet on the street who don’t get that. Speaking from personal experience, as Christians we can often be just as forgetful of what God’s real goal and purpose for us is. We think more of what we have been saved from than what we have been saved for. We spend more time thinking about the helps and means God has given us than the end he has in view. We focus on side issues and miss the real point of the Bible. We lose sight of the face of God.