I have been asked how I “handle” the verse “No man has seen God and lived,” in relation to both Jesus and the Spirit. I presume the verse in question is one, or perhaps all, of the following:
But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exod 33:20, in the context of Moses desiring to see God’s glory)
Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?” (Deut 4:33, God’s proclamation to Israel)
And Manoah said to his wife, ‘We shall surely die, for we have seen God.’” (Jdg 13:22 after the appearance of the angel of the Lord)
The living God of Israel is truly awesome in his power, majesty and holiness. Of all his attributes, it is his holiness and purity that causes a separation from sinful human beings (Isa 59:2). The laws given to Israel reinforced that separateness. The presence of God was represented by the mercy seat of the ark, which was hidden behind a veil, which was within the tabernacle/temple, which was out of bounds to any who were not properly sanctified and permitted to approach. Mediators were required, in the persons of the priests, and atoning blood was needed before sinners could approach God. He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). To dare to approach God in any way other than that which he had ordained to preserve his holiness, was to invite death (Num 3:4; 2 Sam 6:7; 2 Chron 26:18–21).
But this is not the way it is meant to be. In the garden of Eden, God “walked” and talked with Adam and Eve. In the final consummation of the reign (kingdom) of God, God will again dwell with humankind (Rev 22:3–5) and his people will see his face and live. But in the meantime, there is a barrier between us and God because of our sin; who can stand in his or her filthy rags of self-righteous sinfulness and look upon a holy God? But God has made provision for breaking down this barrier, by dealing with the sin that causes enmity between God and us, and this was revealed as early as Eden.
Even in the Old Testament, by the ritual cleansing that foreshadowed the ultimate tearing of the veil by Christ, there was provision to behold God after a fashion. God was seen in his mighty acts and the people were instructed to seek him. God was “seen” in the person of his angel, who bore his name (Gen 32:30; Judg 6:22; 13:22). In Deuteronomy 5, Moses relates how he acted as mediator;
The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived?”
But in fact, Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel had gone up on the mountain (Ex 24:10–11) “and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” This appearance of God is similar to other visual encounters with God by Isaiah (Isa 6, which John says was actually the glory of Christ; John 12:39:41) and Ezekiel (Ezek 3:23ff). In these passages, it is the “glory” of God that is seen. Moses was not permitted to see the “face” of God, but saw his glory (Ex 33:18–34:8). The glory of the Lord is his Name; “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” God’s hesed, his steadfast love; his grace and mercy, his covenant faithfulness; these are the characteristics of God that he reveals throughout his word.
Job’s confidence in the resurrection was that “in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 18:26). Isaiah prophesied the One whose glory would be manifested to Israel, the glory of the Lord, Immanuel, God with us: “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you” (Isa 60:2). Jesus himself proclaimed that seeing God would be the reward of the pure in heart (Matt 5:8).
How then can we see God? Will it be limited to the awful spectacle of “the glory of the Lord” as seen by Isaiah and Ezekiel? Or the “back parts” of God as seen by Moses? We humans, in our sinfulness, cannot approach a holy God and live. But God has taken the initiative to approach us. In the Old Testament, sometimes God revealed aspects of his glory, but in the New Testament we discover the promise and fullfilment of the full revelation of God’s glory. God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ his Son, the eternal Word made flesh, Immanuel, God with us. He took on the form of a servant, he took on full humanity, in order to do for us what we could not do for ourselves; tear down the veil, remove the separation, sanctify us and enable us to approach God, not in fear of a consuming fire, but as a loving Father, and we as his children. Jesus came to show us God, because he himself is God.
“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1John 4:12).
“Not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46)
‘If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:7–10).
In what sense, other than Jesus himself being God, and having come from God, does Jesus then show us “God”? As the incarnate Son, those who physically interacted with him interacted with God in the person of the man Jesus Christ.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1–3).
Jesus’ associates saw “God with us” and because Jesus came from the Father and knew the Father intimately, they “saw the Father” manifested in his Son. But Jesus is also the glory of God, the perfect representation of his character as revealed to Moses centuries before.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:14–18).
Jesus made God known during his life on earth. He continues to shine the light of the knowledge of the glory of God into our hearts (2 Cor 4:6). It was his glory that Isaiah beheld, and it was his death that glorified God in tearing down the veil of separation, making a way of access to the Most Holy Place. In Christ, there are no longer boundaries between us and God. The Spirit is now the Spirit of Sonship, the Other Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, the means through which God/Christ dwell in us and who will raise us from the dead to behold his glory face to face as God forever dwells with his people.