The Holiness of God
by R. C. Sproul
Men are not allowed to see the face of God. The Scriptures warn that no man can see God and live. We remember Moses' request when he ascended into the holy mountain of God. Moses had been an eyewitness of astonishing miracles. He had heard the voice of God speaking to him out of the burning bush. He had witnessed the river Nile turn into blood. He had tasted manna from heaven and gazed upon the pillar of fire. He had seen the chariots of Pharoah inundated by the waves of the Red Sea. Still, he was not satisfied. He wanted more. He craved the ultimate spiritual experience. He inquired of the Lord on the mountain, "let me see your face. Show me your glory." The request was denied.
And the Lord said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live." Then the Lord said, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen." (Exodus 33:19-23, NIV)
When God told Moses that he could see HIs back, the literal reading of the text can be translated "hindquarters but never His face. When Moses returned from the mount, his face was shining. The people were terrified, and they shrunk away from him in horror. Moses' face was too dazzling for them to look upon. So Moses put a veil over his face so the people could approach him. this experience of terror was directed at the face of a man who had come so close to God that he was reflecting God's glory. This was a reflection of the glory from the back of God, not the refulgent glory of His face. If people are terrified by the sight of the reflected glory of the back parts of God, how can anyone stand to gaze directly into his holy face?
Yet the final goal of every Christian is to be allowed to see what was denied to Moses. We want to see Him face to face. We want to bask in the radiant glory of HIs divine countenance. It was the hope of every Jew, a hope instilled in the most famous and beloved benediction of Israel:
The LORD bless thee and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
This hope, crystallized in the benediction of Israel, becomes more than a hope for the Christian- it becomes a promise. St. John tells in his first letter:
Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
Here is the promise of God: We shall see Him as He is. Theologians call this future expectation Beatific Vision. We will see God as He is. This means that someday we will God face to face. We will not see the reflected glory of a burning bush or a pillar of cloud. We will see Him as He is, as He is in His pure divine essence.
Right now it is impossible for us to see God in His pure essence. Before that can ever happen we must be purified. When Jesus taught the Beatitudes, He promised only a distinct group the vision of God: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." None of us in this world is pure in heart. It is our impurity that prevents us from seeing God. The problem is not with our eyes; it is with our hearts. Only after we are purified and totally sanctified in heaven will we have the capacity to gaze upon Him face to face.