Question:Scripture says that no one can see God. For example, Exodus 33:20 says that God stated, 'You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!' And yet, Gen. 17:1 says that God appeared to Abraham. Exodus 24:10 says the Israelites 'saw the God of Israel,' and Exodus 24:11 says that 'they saw God.'" How can both be true?
Bible Answer: I would like to start by saying that men have tried to find and see God for countless centuries and millennia but without success. John 5:37; 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 Peter 1:8 and 1 John 4:12 tells us that no man has been able to see God. There are apparently two reasons men have not been able to see God.
First Reason. The first reason is that Col. 1:15 and 1 Tim. 1:17 reveal that God is invisible. So we should not be surprised that God cannot be found in the heavens with telescopes or by space exploration. He cannot be found by traveling to the planet Mars, the next nearest star or the farthest star. Since God is an invisible being, man cannot normally see Him. Man can only see God when God allows man to see Him. So Moses asked God in Exodus 33:18 to allow Him to see God. Initially, God said, "No!"
Second Reason. The second reason that men cannot see God is that if and when they see God, they die. That is the essence of what God told Moses in Exodus 33:20,
You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live! Exodus 33:20 (NASB)
That is, Moses did not see God’s face according to verse 21, but Moses could see other parts of God. Listen to Exodus 33: 21-23,
Then the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen." Exodus 33:21-23
Here we discover that Moses was allowed to see God’s back but not His face. We should not think that God has a literal face and back just as we do, and we should not think that God is composed of different animal or human parts. So Moses saw something called God’s back, whatever that was. Moses could not see God’s face. We should not take this to mean that God has a human face. How shall we understand that? If I want to see one of my friends, I expect to see his or her face and not their back. So Moses did not see God fully. He saw God’s back, whatever that was, because God allowed it.
Now let's consider several passages in the Bible that say people did see God. We want to ask in what sense did people see God.
The first example is the apostle John who wrote both the gospel of John and the book of Revelation. It is important to notice that the same author wrote both books since he describes God and God's throne room in Revelation 4, but yet in John 1:18 he says, "No one has seen God at any time." How can both be true? In what sense did John see God in Revelation 4? The answer is found in the fact that the description of God in Revelation 4 was obtained by a vision. So John saw a vision of God but not God while he (John) was still in human flesh.
The second example, is found in Deut. 34:10 where we are told that Moses had an extraordinary relationship with God. Here is the verse,
Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face . . . Deut. 34:10
Here we are told that Jacob also spoke with God face-to-face in Gen. 32:24-30. So in what sense did Jacob see God "face to face"? What does it mean to see God face to face? Deut. 5:4 gives us the answer when it says that Moses saw God on Mt. Sinai face to face. Both passages refer to the fact that Moses saw God's back. It does not mean that Moses saw God's face. "Face-to-face" is an expression indicating that communication has taken place between man and God.
In another passage, Exodus 24:10-11, we are told that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy leaders went up on Mt. Sinai and saw God. Listen to these verses,
. . . and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Exodus 24:10
The verse reveals that they saw God's feet and the sea of glass beneath the throne of God. The apostle John describes the same thing in Rev. 4:6. But notice that nothing is said about what part(s) of God they saw. Did they see only His feet and back? It would appear from the other passages that we have considered that they did not see His face. That is what no man can see and live to talk about it.
In Genesis 17:1 Abraham saw a theophany or an appearance of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament called the Angel of the Lord. So when the passage says that the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, "I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless," God did not appear as himself but as the Angel – a theophany.
For completeness, 1 Kings 3:5; 9:2; and 11:9 say that King Solomon saw God in a dream but not in person. Isaiah 6:1 and 5 say that Isaiah saw God. That is, he saw a vision of God but not God in reality or he was not bodily in heaven in the presence of God. Ezekiel 3:23 says that Ezekiel saw the glory of God but not God's face. Acts 7:55-60 says that the first Christian martyr saw a vision of the glory of God and Jesus in His resurrection body. That is, he did not bodily go to heaven and see God.
We shall conclude with three verses. The first two verses are John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12 which say that "No one has seen God at any time." No man while still being on this earth has truly seen God at any time. No man has seen God's face.
Conclusion:The last verse is Matthew 5:8 which says,
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
That is, the only way anyone can really see God is to be pure in heart. One who is pure in heart will be repentant of their sins and want to live a holy life. Such a person will want to be spiritually right with God and will believe in Jesus Christ and give their life to Him. Have you done that? If you have, you will see God some day in heaven – face to face.