This week’s question comes from Andrew in Ontario, Canada. “I understand that Moses had a special relationship with God because they spoke to each other face to face. Was Moses the last person to do so? Is it true that Jesus never spoke face to face with God?”
The passage in question is found in Exodus 33.11: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” Clearly Moses had a very special relationship with God, for the scriptures speak of no one else who spoke to God face to face like a friend. On the other hand, the scriptures do mention others who have both seen and spoken with God.
The first people to walk and talk with God on an intimate level was Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. Later, there was Abraham who had face to face conversations with God. We read in Genesis 17.1, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared, to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.’” Then there was Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, who apparently saw God: “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Genesis 16.13). And Jacob not only saw God, he wrestled with God in Genesis 32. However, all of these people predate Moses.
But there are others after Moses who saw and spoke with God. Manoah in Judges 13 panics because he sees God, as does Isaiah when he sees God in Isaiah 6.1. And later in the New Testament we read of Stephen seeing God moments before he was martyred in Acts 7.
So, according to the scriptures, Moses wasn’t the last one to see and speak to God. But our writer also asked whether Jesus ever saw God. The answer to that question is found in the gospel of John. But when we turn there we discover it opens up a rather large can of worms: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1.18) and Jesus says of himself, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father” (John 6.46).
So, Jesus has seen God, but then goes on to say that no one else has. But what about all those verses we’ve already looked at? Have we discovered another contradiction?
The answer to that question is a resounding, “Maybe.” On the surface, John does seem to contradict at least eight other passages that all clearly say that others have seen God. So, how do we explain John’s words?
One explanation is found in the works of the Jesus’ Seminar who evaluated the recorded words of Jesus in an effort to separate what Jesus himself may have said as opposed to what the early Church says he said. In this particular passage the scholars suggested Jesus likely didn’t say these words at all; instead, in its effort to present Jesus as Emmanuel, “God with us,” the early church writers created the proverb to imply Jesus’ special relationship with God.
However, not everyone agrees that the Jesus’ Seminar’s findings, and even if correct, we still have to deal with the scriptures we have, not the scriptures we may wish we had. Certainly, John was familiar with the writings of the Old Testament and anyone raised in the Jewish community would have been familiar with Moses’ special relationship with God, so why would anyone superfluously put these words in Jesus’ mouth?
On the other hand, if Jesus did say those words it begs the question whether Jesus was familiar enough with the scriptures to recall the passages that spoke of Moses and others who saw God. The answer to that one, I believe, must be yes, of course Jesus knew the scriptures—certainly as well, if not better, than most of the rabbis of his day. So, why would he say this?
There are at least two possible answers to this question. A more traditional answer is that since Jesus was God and was omniscient (all knowing), he would know whether or not Moses, or anyone else, had actually seen and spoken to God. And if not, then these biblical figures may well have thought they’d seen God, but they were mistaken. Indeed, in most, but not all, of the Old Testament accounts, the passages begin by identifying the appearance of God as the “Angel of the Lord” or as a “man.” Only later in the passage is this figure identified as God (cf., Genesis 16.7, 18.2, Judges 13.20)
The second answer is less traditional, but seems to have great merit. The reality is that God is God and in our human finiteness we can only know God in a finite way. In other words, Jesus may, in fact, be suggesting that those who have “seen God” may have seen only a manifestation of God, and no one has ever seen or experienced the true fullness of God.
So, has anyone ever really seen God and lived? The
scriptures say yes and the scriptures say no. To
say more than that would be, perhaps, to say too