Has anyone ever seen God? This is a question that arises naturally when reading through Scripture. You’re making your way through Exodus and then you read in 24:9-10,
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 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 then just a few chapters later, you read God’s response to Moses’ request to see his glory:
And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD’ … 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19-20)
In the first passage, Scripture says that Moses saw God, but in the second, God tells Moses that he cannot see his face, because no one can see him and live. How do we make sense of these two statements? Did Moses and the other elders really see the God of Israel on the mountain? If so, why does God tell Moses in 33:20 that he cannot see him?
Old Testament professor Walt Kaiser, commenting on 24:9-10, provides an answer:
That Moses and his company see “the God of Israel” at first appears to contradict 33:20; John 1:18; and 1 Timothy 6:16; but what they see is a “form [‘similitude’] of the Lord” (Nu 12:8), just as Ezekiel (Eze 1:26) and Isaiah (Isa 6:1) saw an approximation, a faint resemblance and a sensible adumbration of the incarnate Christ who was to come. (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 508)
In other words, when we come across passages in which God is said to be seen, whether by Abraham, Moses, or one of the prophets, we are to understand that these men did indeed see the Lord, but that they did not see him in his full glory. This is what Moses asked to see in 33:20 and this is what God denied him.
Throughout Scripture God makes his presence known to his people in different forms (such as passing visitors to Abraham and Lot, a burning bush to Moses, a pillar of fire and cloud to the people of Israel, etc.). But his pure essence no man is able to see, due to his radiant holiness (1 Timothy 6:16). It’s like trying to stare at the sun—it cannot be done without destroying your eyes.
Even Christ himself, who is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), relinquished his heavenly glory when he came to earth. We saw him, but he “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Yet when John sees him in Revelation, his appearance is unbearable, his face “like the sun shining in full strength” (1:16).
The sure hope of heaven is that we will one day be able to experience the full glory of our God. Our blood-bought, resurrected bodies will be equipped with new, indestructible eyes, we will see his face, and we will bask in the light of his glory forever (Revelation 22:4-5).