John 1:18a declares, “No one has seen God at any time.” And, 1 Timothy 6:16 states that “no man has seen or can see” God. However, other scriptures seem to indicate that certain people have seen God. How can this apparent contradiction be resolved?
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we are quoting a source that uses a different translation.]
One example of a scripture that specifically states that people have seen God is Exodus 24:9-10a, which says, “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel.”
According to Strong’s Concordance, the Hebrew word ra’ah that is translated in Exodus 24:9-10a as saw can mean not only to see or observe, but also to “perceive, get acquainted with [or] gain understanding. . . .” In other words, the Hebrew word does not necessarily indicate that Moses and those who were with him actually saw God with their eyes. However, a number of biblical scholars believe that God did manifest Himself in some visible form to Moses and the men who were with him.
With regard to the same scripture, Norman Geisler, Ph.D. and Thomas Howe, M.A., state on page 83 of their book entitled When Critics Ask,
[I]t is clear from the description and from other passages of Scripture (Ex. 33:19-20; Num. 12:8; John 1:18), that what these people saw was not theessence of God, but rather a visual representation of the glory of God. Even when Moses asked to see God’s glory (Ex. 33:18-23), it was only a likeness of God which Moses saw (cf. Num. 12:8 where the Hebrew word temunah – “form,” “likeness” – is used), and not the very essence of God.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible explains Exodus 24:9-10a as follows,
They saw the God of Israel . . ., that is, they had some glimpse of his glory, in light and fire, though they saw no manner of similitude, and his being no man hath seen nor can see, 1 Tim vi. 16. They saw the place where the God of Israel stood . . ., something that came near a similitude, but was not; whatever they saw, it was certainly something of which no image nor picture could be made, and yet enough to satisfy them that God was with them of a truth.
In reference to the same scripture, Keil and Delitzsch say in their publication entitled Commentary on the Old Testament,
We must not go beyond the limits drawn in ch. 33:20-23 [of Exodus] in our conceptions of what constituted the sight of God; at the same time we must regard it as a vision of God in some form of manifestation which rendered the divine nature discernible to the human eye. Nothing is said as to the form in which God manifested himself.
Exodus 33:20-23, the scripture passage referenced by Keil and Delitzsch, says,
He [the Lord God] said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
A comment in Matthew Henry’s Commentary pertaining to this scripture passage says, “A full discovery of the glory of God would quite overpower the faculties of any mortal man in this present state, and overwhelm him, even Moses himself.”
What about Deuteronomy 5:4, which states that the Lord (i.e., God) talked with the Israelites “face to face”? How could God speak with the Israelites face to face without them being able to see His face?
On page 58 of their previously-cited book, Geisler and Howe state, “It is possible for a blind person to speak face to face with someone without seeing their face. The phrase ‘face to face’ means personally, directly, or intimately.”
In the New International Version of the Bible, a footnote applicable to John 1:18 (a portion of which we previously quoted) asserts, “[S]ince no human being can see God as he really is, those who saw God saw him in a form he took on himself temporarily for the occasion.”
Also, with regard to John 1:18, Geisler and Howe note on page 83 of their previously- mentioned book, “While ‘no one has seen God [in His essence]’ . . . nonetheless, His only begotten Son revealed Him. Thus, Jesus could say, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).”
Since the Bible records many instances of people who saw Jesus Christ in person, there is no doubt that humans did see a manifestation of God when He came to earth in incarnate (i.e., human) form. Thus, through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God has provided mankind with a greater understanding of His essence.
However, we cannot fully comprehend the full essence of God, because God in His natural form is Spirit, according to John 4:24a.
With regard to this scripture, Henry states,
God is a spirit, for he is an infinite and eternal mind, an intelligent being, incorporeal, immaterial, invisible, and incorruptible. It is easier to say what God is not than what he is; a spirit has not flesh and bones. . . . If God were not a spirit, he could not be perfect, nor infinite, nor eternal. . . .
What may seem to be contradictions in the Bible as to whether or not human beings have actually seen God can be reconciled. And, although people have seen God in His human form as Jesus Christ (i.e., God the Son), it is reasonable to conclude that the Bible provides no clear indication that any living human being has ever actually seen the full essence of God.