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John 1:18 claims that no one has ever seen God, except Jesus:

18 God no one hath ever seen; the only begotten Son, who is on the bosom of the Father -- he did declare.

However, Moses was apparently another exception, as Exodus 33:18-23 recounts:

18 And he saith, `Shew me, I pray Thee, Thine honour;' 19 and He saith, `I cause all My goodness to pass before thy face, and have called concerning the Name of Jehovah before thee, and favoured him whom I favour, and loved him whom I love.' 20 He saith also, `Thou art unable to see My face, for man doth not see Me, and live;' 21 Jehovah also saith, `Lo, a place [is] by Me, and thou hast stood on the rock, 22 and it hath come to pass, in the passing by of Mine honour, that I have set thee in a cleft of the rock, and spread out My hands over thee, until My passing by, 23 and I have turned aside My hands, and thou hast seen My back parts, and My face is not seen.'

Although Moses wasn't allowed to see God's face, he certainly got to see His back. Doesn't that technically count as getting to see God in a literal physical sense? Doesn't that contradict John 1:18?

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Who has seen God?

If we take the text at face value, then God was seen by Abraham, Moses, Stephen, and others.

Genesis 17:1

the Lord appeared to Abram

Exodus 33:11

And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.

Acts 7: 55-56

55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,

56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

(more such passages including Enoch, Isaiah, etc could be cited as well)

Do we reinterpret these passages?

We can try to do some acrobatics with a whole slew of texts, but there are two alternatives available that require fewer assumptions:

a. this is a contradiction (we throw up our hands & give up trying to make sense of the text)

b. we have missed the meaning of a single word,"ἑώρακεν", in John 1:18

What does horaó mean?

Option b is pretty clear cut. "ἑώρακεν" comes from the verb ὁράω (horaó), which has greater semantic range than we may be giving it credit for. It can mean "to see" in the plainest sense of the word. It can also mean:

"properly, see, often with metaphorical meaning: "to see with the mind" (i.e. spiritually see), i.e. perceive (with inward spiritual perception)." (see here).

Thus it is entirely grammatically possible that John is saying nothing about physically seeing God, but rather pointing out people's inability to fully perceive or understand God. "To see" can carry a similar metaphorical meaning in English, such as "I see your point." A similar observation (sorry, pun intended) was made on this site by oldhermit here

Conclusion:

I favor the perception/understanding meaning of horaó as the most self-consistent interpretation of the text (after all, the author was familiar with the Old Testament). To use a different play on words (that would also likely confuse literalistic readers 2 millennia from now) John is not telling us people cannot see God; he is telling us: there is more to God than meets the eye.

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    some interpretations of who "The Lord" might be is actually Jesus and not the Father. For example, there is the view that it was Jesus who appeared to Saul Acts 9:1 "Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord." (clearly the Lord here is Jesus for his disciples called Him Lord) and Acts 9:5 “Who are You, Lord?” Saul asked.“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied.a 6“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” – Adam Feb 25 at 7:24
  • @Adam I would agree that at least most (maybe all?) of the OT appearances of God could be read as pre-mortal appearances of Jesus. I don't see anything in the text falsifying the idea. One's interpretation of other passages may accept or preclude this view. Interpretations include a) the Father & Son are separate persons but one substance, b) the Father & Son are separate beings and the title God is applicable to both, c) God refers to the Father and Jesus is His representative, etc. A & B appear reconcilable with your suggestion. Theology doubtless plays a role in interpretation at that point – Hold To The Rod Feb 25 at 18:50
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No Human has ever seen the Father

Let us be very clear that the NT is unambiguous about no one (human - angels see God's face, Matt 18:10) ever having seen the Father.

  • John 1:18 - No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
  • John 6:46 - No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. (See also Matt 18:10.)
  • 1 John 4:12 - No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is perfected in us.

Three Vignettes of Jesus

Let us examine three separate and different descriptions of Jesus in the NT:

  • John 4 - Jesus is tired, hungry and thirsty and appeared as a man, indistinguishable from other middle eastern Jewish men
  • Matt 17:1-13, Mark 9:1–13; Luke 9:28–36 - Jesus reveals some of His glory which, as God, is normally veiled. Peter James and John are amazed but not blinded.
  • Acts 9:3-7 - Jesus appears to Saul in His glorified form. Saul is dazzled and blinded.

The final glorified scene of Jesus was referenced by Jesus Himself when He prayed in John 17:5 -

And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed.

This prayer was fulfilled at the resurrection when the soldiers guarding the tomb became as dead men.

Thus, we see that Jesus is capable of appearing as a human and did so during the incarnation (and also when He appeared to Abraham in Gen 18:1, 10, 13, 15, 17, etc) and also in His gloried form and everything in between.

Ex 33:12 - 34:10

The incident in Exodus when God reveals Himself to Moses is a result of a very specific request by Moses in Ex 33:18, "Show me your glory". The fact that any member of the Godhead could not reveal His personal glory to a sinful human was overcome by allowing Moses to only see God's back.

Now, it is a simple matter that because the NT so clearly says that no human has seen God, then, Moses obviously saw the pre-incarnate Jesus as it is Jesus who regularly reveals Himself to humans in dozens of occasions in the OT, here is a sample:

  • Gen 18:1, 10 - Then the LORD appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent. ... Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son!”
  • Gen 32:30 - So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
  • Ex 3:5, 6 - “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
  • Josh 5:13 - 6:2 - And the LORD said to Joshua, “Behold, I have delivered Jericho into your hand, along with its king and its mighty men of valor. (V2)
  • Judges 6:14 - The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel from the hand of Midian. Am I not sending you?” [See also V16]
  • See also instances of the “Angel of the LORD” clearly being the LORD - Gen 16:7-13, 22:11-17, 32:24-30, 48:16, Ex 3:2-6, 32:34, Num 22:22-35, Josh 5:13-15, Judg 2:1-4, 6:11-23, 13:3-23, Isa 63:9, Dan 3:25, 28, Hos 12:4, 5, Zech 3:1-7, Mal 3:1.
  • A closely related phrase, “Angel of God” who is clearly God as in Gen 6:13, 8:15, 9:8, 17, 15:13, 17:3, 4, 21:12, 16-21, 35:1, 10, Ex 4:3-8, 6:2, 23:20, 21, Deut 1:6, 1 Kings 12:22, etc. See also Acts 10:3, 4, Gal 4:14.

This is consistent with other NT statements that Jesus is the greatest revelation of the Father such as Heb 1:1-3, John 14:5-13, etc.

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Looking carefully at this passage, I do not see how the words “face”, “hand” or “back” can refer to God's literal body. My interpretation is based on the context of the events from the previous passage. In Exodus 32, the Israelites cast a golden calf and give it worship and sacrifice. In this passage, God tells Moses to lead his people to the promise land, but still angry with their sin, God would no longer go with them:

  • vv. 1-3: The LORD said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’… but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

Distressed, Moses shares his concerns with God about having to lead the people without God’s presence and guidance:

  • v. 12: Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.”

  • v. 15: And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here."

God relents in his anger and grants Moses’ request. God says he knows him by name, implying that God knows who Moses truly is and that Moses has found favor with God:

  • vv. 17-18: The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”

God also answers Moses’ request to know God and be shown his ways;

  • v. 13: “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you

It is my interpretation that the next part of the passage is figurative in meaning and contain a revelation about who God is and the working of his grace:

  • v. 19: And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy”

Just as God knew Moses by name, God’s name, or rather his nature, will be made known to Moses. God will be known by his goodness, and his goodness will be shown, though at God’s discretion, by his graciousness and mercy. But though Moses can know of God’s nature, he cannot see God as he truly is:

  • v. 20: But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

God then depicts a scene using the future tense that is full of comforting imagery: God’s goodness will go before Moses; God will show him to a place by his side, a rock where he will stand firmly; God will put him in the shelter of the the rock's cleft; God’s hand will give him cover and protection.

  • v. 21-22: And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by”

Similar use of these imagery can be found elsewhere in the OT:

  • The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps 18:2)
  • If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Ps 139:9-10)

The use of the future tense implies that this scene did not actually take place. Rather, God was reassuring Moses of his help and protection in times of difficulty and trial. God’s goodness, however, cannot be seen as he is passing. or at the moment when it is at work. Only by looking at God’s back, that is, at where he had been or in retrospect, can Moses see the traces of God’s grace and mercy:

  • v. 23: “and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

The words “hand” and “back” are used figuratively and do not refer to parts of God’s physical body. This passage therefore does not contradict the words in John (1:18). On the contrary, both affirm that “no one has ever seen” nor "shall see me [God] and live."

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You cannot see God. [because] God is spirit. And, spirit’s need a ‘body’ to be seen, even with ‘spiritual eyes’. Whenever a heavenly ‘being’ was ‘seen’, they always had [spiritual/heavenly] bodies. Every time!

JOHN 2:24 God is spirit [snip]

But, you can see the/a manifestation of God. The Israelites has the ‘cloud’, (shekhinah). And, they at times saw lightning and heard thunder that they ascribed as God. A key verse to help us (westerners) see’ a Hebraic understanding is ...

JOHN 14:9 [snip] Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

That is, we ‘see’ God ‘in’ something (e.g. creation/cloud/etc), or ‘in’ someone (e.g. Jesus). Romans 1 clearly says that unbelievers ‘see’ God in creation - until/unless they suppress this inner perception.

Moses ‘saw’ God as an angel, one who stood ‘as [fully representing] God’.

EXODUS 23:20 ”Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.

And in the burning bush, we see the same. And - Moses at one point further down the ‘story’ said it was God.

EXODUS 3: And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.

Now the manifestation that Moses experienced on the mountain was obviously something unique. And the way he described it can lead to much conjecture. Nevertheless you need to consider what we know from scripture. We have clear text stating God can’t be seen, and the consequences if we did. Moses obviously had a manifestation past that of others, but nevertheless he did not ‘see’ God.

The point is that God cannot be ‘seen’, but yet can be. The argument for several pre-incarnate manifestations of Jesus is compelling. The Acceptance of Christophany’s. Jesus manifestating to several Old Testament believers. Many argue that the angel that lead Moses through the wilderness, and worked through prophets, was in fact a Christophany. Jesus in a spiritual body. And as per our first quoted verse, he who has seen me (Jesus) has seen the father.

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  • All good until Ex3. There is only ambiguous references to a pre-existing Christ/Jesus and to make from these meagre inclusions a speculative truth is without merit. On the other hand we have clear and ample evidence to a human Jesus born of Mary according to prophecy. -1 for the last part only. Esp, as the Q was about God, not Jesus. – user48152 Feb 25 at 5:06
  • i think the answer given by Dave explores a probability that what Moses in fact may have seen is exactly that "A christophanby (Jesus). Its an interesting idea, however, i think that one would have to first confirm whether or not one could look upon Jesus in the old testament without dying? Seeing God and facing death appears to be foremost concern in the example of Moses. Stephen seeing the Godhead (with Jesus seated on the Right) was in vision. Whether he saw "the Father" here is unkown. It may be he interpreted God because he was allowed to see the Son of Man (whom he obviously recognised) – Adam Feb 25 at 7:46
  • @user48152 Firstly, thanks! Appreciate you for providing reason for the down vote. I never mind them, they’re part of debate, nice to have a ‘why’! Pre-incarnate appearances are not Jesus as ‘human’. For this He needs a physical body, and these only come via birth. And yes, these pre-incarnate visits are all somewhat speculative. (Cannot defend energetically). But to the Hebrews, in Hebraic ‘thinking’, seeing the angel of God = seeing God, seeing a pre-incarnate Jesus = seeing God – Dave Feb 25 at 17:53
  • @Adam For consideration, [even just] the ‘presence’ of God was/is usually overwhelming. You can ‘see’/‘sense’/feel’ [via your physical senses] God without actually ‘seeing’ God with your physical eyes. My personal interpretation is this could be what Moses is describing. That reference to ‘Gods back parts’ probably has some [Hebraic] meaning beyond the literal meaning? – Dave Feb 25 at 18:05

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