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Has Anyone Ever Seen God?

Carol Brooks

Many Christians believe that no one has ever seen God. However, numerous Biblical verses clearly say that certain people in the Old Testament did.

Does the Bible contradicts itself on the subject of whether anyone has ever seen God? Some verses seeming to indicate that no human can ever see Him while others seem to unambiguously state that on occasion certain people in the Old Testament saw Him although not very clearly.

 ON THIS PAGE
The Controversy
Testimonials From The Old Testament
Seeing God Vs. Seeing God's Face
The 'Form' Of The Lord
Didn't Jesus Say No One Has Ever Seen God?
Yes, but...
The Greek Word Horao


The Controversy

Many seem to believe that the Bible contradicts itself on the subject of whether anyone has ever seen God. Some verses seeming to indicate that no human can ever see Him while others unambiguously state that on occasion certain people in the Old Testament saw Him - although not very clearly.

The gospel of John seems to clearly state that apart from Jesus no man has ever seen God.

    No one has seen (Gk. horao) God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.  (John 1:18 NASB)

    "And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen (Gk. horao) His form.  (John 5:37 NASB)

    "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen (Gk. horao) the Father.  (John 6:46 NASB)

Yet, a rather extensive list of people in the Old Testament including Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Micaiah claim they saw God .


Testimonials From The Old Testament

A) Abraham
Consider the Hebrew words used in the following verses

    Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord (Heb. Yhvh) appeared to (Heb. r'h) Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless.  (Genesis 17:1 NASB)

    Now the Lord (Heb. Yhvh) appeared to (Heb. r'h) him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. (Genesis 18:1 NASB)

Not only was Yhvh the proper name of the God of Israel, but the Hebrew word r'h used in both instances occurs close to 400 times in the first five books of the Bible alone. It overwhelmingly means to visually see something with one's eyes. For example,

    The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, "Now lift up your eyes and look (Heb. r'h)  from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; (Genesis 13:14 NASB)

And that is not all. The Lord Himself told Moses that He "appeared (Heb. r'h) to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty", but did not make Himself known to them. He went on to say that He established His covenant with them, "to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they sojourned". (Exodus 6:2-4).

In other words, it was neither Jesus nor an angel that Abraham saw because an angel is not "God Almighty" and no one but God the Father made a covenant with Abraham.

Additionally, Stephen confirmed that "the God of glory" appeared to Abraham.

    And he said, "Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God (Gr. theos) of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, (Acts 7:2 NASB)

Theos was used over 1300 time in the New Testament to refer to God the Father and the expression "God of glory" occurs only one other time in Psalm 29 in which it is a clear reference to God the Father. ("King of Glory" occurs four times in Psalm 24)

    The voice of the Lord (Heb. Yhvh) is upon the waters; The God of glory thunders, The Lord (Heb. Yhvh) is over many waters. (Psalms 29:3 NASB)

B) Moses:
On two separate occasions the Bible tells us that one or more persons saw the Lord 'face to face' which is a figure of speech and does not necessarily mean seeing God's face.

    "Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses returned to the camp, his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent."  (Exodus 33:11 NASB)

A few verses later the Bible tells us that Moses asked the Lord to show him His glory to which the Lord replied that no man could see his face and live, but He would put Moses in the cleft of a rock and cover him with His hand until He passed by. Then He would take His hand away and Moses would see God's back, but His face would not be seen. (Exodus 33:18-23).

The fact remains that although God covered Moses' eyes with His hand until He had passed by Moses did see God's back and that constitutes 'seeing' God. Think about it... if someone asks you if you saw Sam that morning, I am very sure that you would say you had, although you might have only caught the briefest glimpse of him disappearing around a corner.

In other words, Moses saw God, even though it was just one side of Him and certainly not His face.

C) Jacob:

    "So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved." (Genesis 32:30 NASB)  

D) 74 Elders: Once more using the Hebrew r'h the Old Testament tells us that the elders of Israel not only saw God but ate and drank in His presence.

    Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw (Heb. r'h) the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11 NASB)

Note: The pavement of sapphire seen by the elders of Israel is the same as the expanse of crystal seen by Ezekiel, and the "Sea of 'Glass' Like crystal described by John. All of which are part of the fascinating topic "No More Sea?" (Revelation 21:1) that few seem to have given much thought to.

E) Gideon and Manoah and his Wife:
The incidents involving Gideon and Manoah and his wife (Sampson's parents) are slightly different as both accounts stated that they had contact with "an angel of the Lord". One cannot be certain whether this was Yahweh Himself or one of His messengers. I am inclined towards the former because both sets of people were afraid they were going to die. The Bible tells us that no one can see God and live. It does not say that 'no one can see an angel and live'.

As a matter of fact plenty of people in the Old Testament saw  an angel and although the experience might have been overwhelming, they lived to tell the tale. Not only was Daniel helped up by the angel who came to him with a message (Daniel 10:10) but he was also able to tell us what he looked like. In verses 5 -6 the prophet described the angel's face, arms, feet, clothes, and the sound of his voice.

Manoah believed that they would die because they had seen God however, his wife was rather more practical telling her husband that

    If the Lord (Heb. Elohim) (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:28).had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have let us hear things like this at this time." (Judges 13: 22-23)

Although elohim was occasionally used to refer to false gods (Deuteronomy 4:28) and human rulers or judges (Psalm 82:1, 6)  Manoah would not have feared them.

F) Micah:
Even the little known prophet Micah gave seeing the Lord as his credentials for being a true prophet.

    "Therefore, hear the word of the Lord (Heb. Yhvh). I saw (Heb. r'h) the Lord (Heb. Yhvh) sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left. (1 Kings 22:19 NASB)

I wonder who the host of heaven would be standing around other than Yahweh Himself.

G) Isaiah:

    "In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw (Heb. r'h) the Lord (Heb. adny) sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew". (Isaiah 6:1-2 NASB)

It is claimed that Isaiah was speaking figuratively - that all he saw was something that was a likeness of the Lord but wasn't Yahweh Himself. The problem is that explanation does not jive with his words in verse 5 in which he said (Emphasis Added)

    Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord (Heb. Yhvh) of hosts."  (Isaiah 6:5 NASB)

As said earlier, Yhvh or Yahweh is God's proper name. Footnote I

    And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah (Heb. Yhvh) was I not known to them. (Exodus 6:3 KJV)

Many try to explain it away by trying to convince us that these people were having visions or dreams, or what they saw saw was an angel of the Lord or even Christ. This is very unconvincing simply because the verses clearly say that the people saw God Himself.

Note: I have not included Gideon's experience related in Judges 6 because the Being he saw is both referred to as "an angel of the Lord" and the Lord Himself.  There are plenty of theories as to who Gideon saw too much to go into here. In any case, as shown there are plenty of other more straight forward examples of people who 'saw' the Lord.

However, there was a distinct difference between seeing God and seeing God's face.


Seeing God Vs. Seeing God's Face:
Both Jacob and Moses expressed surprise that they saw God and lived to tell about it (Genesis 32:30 and Exodus 24:10-11). The problem therefore seems to be more a question of seeing God's face and living to tell the tale. As the Father Himself told Moses... 

    "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!" (Exodus 33:20 NASB).

Why is the world would the Father have specifically mentioned His face if seeing any of Him meant death?

However, there is one thing that has to be noted. Although both Moses and Isaiah described what they saw (Moses on the mountain and Isaiah in the Temple) in neither case was a description of God forthcoming.

Moses said absolutely nothing about the appearance of God but spoke about the pavement under His feet made of what appeared to be sapphire. Isaiah had much to say about the appearance of the angels, but all he said about God Himself was that He was seated on a throne and that He wore a robe. Even the mention of the robe was from the point of view of God's glory ie. how the train of His robe filled the temple.

Which begs the question - what exactly did they see? or, to put it another way, how clearly did they see the Lord? Perhaps the wording of Numbers 12:8 in which we are told that Moses saw the Lord, might throw a little more light on the matter.


The 'Form' Of The Lord
The following verse has the Lord speaking to Aaron and Miriam.

    He said, "Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. "Not so, with My servant Moses, He is faithful in all My household; With him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?" (Numbers 12:6-8 NASB)

In other words, the Lord would speak to a prophet is a vision or dream but Moses beheld the "form" of the Lord.

The Hebrew word temnh translated into the English "form" in both the NASB and Young's Literal Translation was used a mere ten times in the Old Testament five of which were in connection with the events at Mt. Horeb when the Lord summoned them to the foot of the mountain to hear His words. Moses later warned the people against making for themselves any graven image - presumably something they thought they saw that day.

    "You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom. "Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form (Heb. temnh) - only a voice.... So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form (Heb. temnh) on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire. (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15 NASB)

Eliphaz One verse in Job helps us to understand what temn means. In relating a vision he had Eliphaz the Temanite said the following...

    Dread came upon me, and trembling, And made all my bones shake. "Then a spirit (Heb. rach) passed by my face; The hair of my flesh bristled up. "It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance; A form (Heb. temnh) was before my eyes; There was silence, then I heard a voice: (Job 4:14-16 NASB)

In other words Eliphaz saw the spirit itself... he saw a shape, but could not tell what it looked like.

This verse actually throws much light on what the elders of Israel saw that day on Mt. Horeb - a shape/form which they knew to be God but could not discern His appearance. This would account for the fact that the Lord "did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel". And that they could only record the appearance of the pavement beneath the Lord's feet, details of the Seraphim's wings etc.

Ezekiel
Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel also saw the Lord on more that one occasion. But note exactly what he said  - he saw a figure with the "appearance of a man" on what "resembled a throne" with brightness emanating from him.

    Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man.  (Ezekiel 1:26 NASB)

    Then I looked, and behold, a likeness as the appearance of a man; from His loins and downward there was the appearance of fire, and from His loins and upward the appearance of brightness, like the appearance of glowing metal.  (Ezekiel 8:2 NASB)

In summary, several people in the Old Testament saw the Lord. However, it is very likely that all they saw was a shape with no discernible details. Moses, on the other hand saw the back of the Lord not a form.

    Note: The expanse of crystal seen by Ezekiel is the same as the pavement of sapphire seen by the elders of Israel and the "Sea of 'Glass' like crystal described by John. All of which are part of the fascinating topic "No More Sea?" (Revelation 21:1) that few seem to have given much thought to.

So what are we to make of statements in the New Testament (One by John the Baptist and the other two by Jesus Himself) that, apart from Him...


Didn't Jesus Say No One Has Ever Seen God?
As mentioned earlier Jesus said that no one besides Himself had ever seen God on three separate occasions

    No one has seen (Gk. horao) God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.  (John 1:18 NASB)

    "And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen (Gk. horao) His form.  (John 5:37 NASB)

    "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen (Gk. horao) the Father.  (John 6:46 NASB)

This leaves us scrambling to explain what the Old Testament stalwarts could possibly have meant when they said they saw the Lord. 

I could be wrong but I suspect it was to resolve this problem that the King James version translated the Hebrew temnh into 'similitude' and the CLV uses 'representation' (See for example, Numbers 12:8). Both similitude and representation mean a similarity, resemblance, or perceptible likeness of something.

Just not the thing itself.

In other words, by choosing these particular English words they convey the impression that what the people in question saw was a 'likeness' of the Lord, not the Lord Himself. On the other hand the NASB and Young's Literal Translation use 'form' - the outline and structure of a thing as opposed to its substance

It is the object itself however, you don't see details.

Which why Moses and Isaiah gave us a fair amount of detail of what surrounded the Lord, just nothing about the Father Himself. They only saw the shape - no specifics.


The Greek Word Horao
So perhaps in view of all the testimony from the Old Testament perhaps we should more closely examine the Greek horao used by Jesus on all three occasions quoted above.

Although used some 50 plus times in the New Testament, horao meant to literally 'see' with one's eyes in only about half the occurrences. For example,

    Mary Magdalene *came, announcing to the disciples, "I have seen (Gk. horao) the Lord," and that He had said these things to her. (John 20:18 NASB)

Which means we need to see how else the word was used.

Make Sure or Be Careful.
In the examples below it means to 'make sure' or 'be careful'. This is hardly surprising because we often use "see" in the same way even in modern usage. For example someone might say "It was difficult to get the appointment, see (make sure) that you are on time'.

    And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them: "See (Gk. horao) that no one knows about this!" (Matthew 9:30 NASB)

    See (Gk. horao) that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."  (Mark 1:44 NASB)

Be On Guard
Horao was even used in the sense of 'be on guard'.

    And He was giving orders to them, saying, "Watch out (Gk. horao) ! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod."  (Mark 8:15 NASB)

    Then He said to them, "Beware (Gk. horao), and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions." (Luke 12:15 NASB)

However relevant to this article is when horao was used the sense of "knowing", having knowledge of, understanding, or being familiar with.

Knowing
In two separate Epistles, John told his readers 

    No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen (Gk. horao) Him or knows Him.  (1 John 3:6 NASB)

    Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen (Gk. horao) God. (3 John 1:11 NASB)

It is impossible that John meant that people who do evil had not literally 'seen' the Lord with their physical eyes. As Robertson's Word Pictures explains "The habit of sin is proof that one has not the vision or the knowledge (egnoken) of Christ. (Emphasis Added)

In other words, people who claim to be Christians but do evil, do not know God. This point is emphasized in chapter 14 that has Philip asking Jesus  "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us" (V.8). Jesus responded

    "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen (Gk. horao) Him."  Philip *said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." Jesus *said to him, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen (Gk. horao) Me has seen (Gk. horao) the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? (John 14:7-9 NASB)

 Bearing this in mind, let us return to the afore mentioned verses that have long been understood as literally seeing God....

John 1:18

    No one has seen (Gk. horao) God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained (Gk. exegeomai) Him.  (John 1:18 NASB)

The Greek word rendered 'explained' is exegeomai. Other translations use 'declared' (KJV and Young's), 'unfold' (CLV), 'made Him known' (NIV and NET), and 'what God is like' (CEV), all of which boil down to pretty much the same thing.

Because both terms 'seen' God and 'explained' God are in the same sentence it seems logical to assume there is a connection between them.

If you want to explain what you have 'seen' to someone and could not show them a photograph or sketch you would paint word pictures. You would tell the person you were talking to how big it was, what its shape and color was etc.  In the case of a person you would describe them - tall, short, fat, thin, shape of face, color of hair, clothes etc. etc.

However, Jesus did not in any way describe what the Father looked like but, being the only person who had intimate knowledge of God, He was only one equipped to make God known to us. And this He did by His very presence on earth. As He told Philip

    "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen (Gk. horao) Him ... He who has seen (Gk. horao) Me has seen (Gk. horao) the Father" (John 14:7-9)

 John 5:37
Chapter five of John's Gospel is about Jesus breaking the Sabbath by healing somebody who had been paralyzed for 38 years, which greatly outraged the Jews. Verse 19 on is Jesus' answer to this accusation, in which He reinforces His unique relationship with the Father telling them that just as His Father was working until then so He Himself was working. This further provoked the Jews who did not address God or speak of Him as their 'father' and (rightly) believed that by doing so Jesus was "making Himself equal with God".

It is in this context that Jesus told them that they had neither heard God's voice at any time nor seen His form.

    And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard (Gk. akouo) His voice at any time nor seen (Gk. horao) His form (Gk. eidos). (John 5:37 NASB)

The Greek word akouo rendered "heard" means to hear not only with one's physical ears, but to pay attention to..

    "He who has ears to hear (Gk. akouo), let him hear (Gk. akouo). (Matthew 11:15 NASB)

However, like every other verses in the Bible this one is best understood in its context which, in this case, shows the aim was to reprove those Jews who were persecuting Him for not believing the evidence that he was the Messiah.

    "But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish - the very works that I do - testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me. "And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form (Gr. eidos)  "You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; (John 5:36-39 NASB)

Clearly, Jesus' point is that if they had known God the Father, they would have recognized Him as God the Son but they had never heard (Gk. akouo) His voice, had never seen His form and did not have His word abiding in them. They were strangers to God.


Conclusion
The misunderstanding seems to stem from the assumption that the Greek word horao only has one meaning i.e. to literally see with one's eyes when in actuality it was used in several different ways. In fact, John himself used it in quite another sense.

Considering Scripture is very clear that some privileged men in the Old Testament saw God although not very clearly and certainly not His face (because to do so would mean death) so when John wrote

    Not that anyone has seen (Gk. horao) the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father.  (John 6:46 NASB)

It is not outside the bounds of probability that what he was saying is that no one has fully known God. The prophets passed on to us what they 'heard' God speak; Jesus 'showed' us what God was like.


Foot Note I
Yhvh is the Hebrew name for God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 3). It is technically known as the Tetragrammaton consisting of the four letters yod, he, vav, and he, usually transliterated as Y H V H. Because the Jews regard God's name as too sacred to be spoken they substitute the term Adonai (my Lord) or Hashem (The Name). Yhvh is usually transliterated as Jehovah or Yahweh.

Many English Bible translations (such as the NASB) print Lord in caps (LORD) to distinguish it from other Hebrew words that may also be translated Lord. {PLACE IN TEXT}

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