Has Anyone Seen God?
THE renowned patriarch Abraham, who lived more than 1,900 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, was so warmly viewed by our Creator that he was called “God’s friend.” (James 2:23, Byington) If anyone would be given the privilege of seeing God, surely Abraham would be that person. Well, on a certain occasion, three visitors came to him with a divine message. Abraham addressed one of them as Jehovah. Does this mean that Abraham actually saw God?
This account is found at Genesis 18:1-3. There we read: “Jehovah appeared to him among the big trees of Mamre, while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent about the heat of the day. When he raised his eyes, then he looked and there three men were standing some distance from him. When he caught sight of them he began running to meet them from the entrance of the tent and proceeded to bow down to the earth. Then he said: ‘Jehovah, if, now, I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant.’”
Later, when Abraham and his three visitors were viewing Sodom from an elevated location, two left to visit the city. Ge 18 Verse 22 then says: “But as for Jehovah, he was still standing before Abraham.” It would appear from this that God was present with Abraham in a materialized fleshly body. This is what some persons contend who believe that God and Jesus Christ are one and the same person.
Regarding Genesis 18:3, Bible scholar Melancthon W. Jacobus wrote: “Here God appears for the first time on record as man among men, to show the reality of His Being, and of His affinity with men, and by this typical act to assure the patriarch of the Divine communion and fellowship.” Those having this point of view could conclude that Abraham actually saw Jehovah with his physical eyes and that persons who saw Jesus Christ also saw God. But is this conclusion in harmony with the Bible?
What Jesus Said
Instead of announcing that he was God in the flesh, Jesus Christ said: “I am God’s Son.” (John 10:36) As Jehovah God’s perfect Representative, Jesus also said: “I cannot do a single thing of my own initiative; just as I hear, I judge; and the judgment that I render is righteous, because I seek, not my own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 5:30) When Jesus was on the torture stake, he prayed to the great Creator in the heavens, addressing him as “My God, my God.” (Matthew 27:46) After his resurrection, Jesus told Mary Magdalene: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father and to my God and your God.” (John 20:1, 17) Since Jesus Christ was not God incarnate, no one who saw Jesus could say that he had thus seen God.
John, the apostle whom Jesus especially loved, confirmed the fact that the apostles were not seeing God when they looked at Jesus. Under inspiration John said: “No man has seen God at any time.” (John 1:18) Whom, then, did Abraham see? The experience of Moses helps us to find the answer.
How Moses Saw God
Moses once expressed the desire to see God. At Exodus 33:18-20, we read: “‘Cause me [Moses] to see, please, your glory.’ But he [God] said: ‘I myself shall cause all my goodness to pass before your face, and I will declare the name of Jehovah before you; and I will favor the one whom I may favor, and I will show mercy to the one to whom I may show mercy.’ And he added: ‘You are not able to see my face, because no man may see me and yet live.’”
What God permitted Moses to see was His passing glory. Ex 33 Verses 21-23 state: “And Jehovah said further: ‘Here is a place with me, and you must station yourself upon the rock. And it has to occur that while my glory is passing by I must place you in a hole in the rock, and I must put my palm over you as a screen until I have passed by. After that I must take my palm away, and you will indeed see my back. But my face may not be seen.’”
In harmony with what Jehovah told Moses and what the apostle John said, Moses saw no materialization or material form of God. All that Moses saw was the afterglow of the divine presence passing by. Even then he had to be divinely protected. Obviously, it was not God himself that Moses saw.
When Moses spoke to God “face to face,” as stated at Exodus 33:11, he was not in visual contact with Jehovah. This expression indicates the manner in which Moses communicated with God, not what he saw. Speaking with God “face to face” indicates a two-way conversation. Similarly, an individual can carry on a two-way conversation by telephone without seeing the other person.
When Moses talked with God and received instructions from him, the communication was not through visions, as was often the case with other prophets. This is noted at Numbers 12:6-8, where we read: “He went on to say: ‘Hear my words, please. If there came to be a prophet of yours for Jehovah, it would be in a vision I would make myself known to him. In a dream I would speak to him. Not so my servant Moses! He is being entrusted with all my house. Mouth to mouth I speak to him, thus showing him, and not by riddles; and the appearance of Jehovah is what he beholds.’” In what sense did Moses behold “the appearance of Jehovah”?
Moses beheld “the appearance of Jehovah” when he, Aaron, and certain other men were on Mount Sinai. At Exodus 24:10, it is written: “They got to see the God of Israel. And under his feet there was what seemed like a work of sapphire flagstones and like the very heavens for purity.” But how did Moses and the other men get to “see the God of Israel,” since God had told him, “No man may see me and yet live”? Ex 24 Verse 11 explains, for it says: “He did not put out his hand against the distinguished men of the sons of Israel, but they got a vision of the true God and ate and drank.” So the appearance of God that Moses and the others saw was by means of a vision.
It has not been necessary for the great Creator of the universe to come down from his lofty place in the heavens in order to deliver messages to certain humans. Aside from the three recorded instances when God’s own voice was heard while his Son was on the earth, Jehovah has always used angels to transmit His messages. (Matthew 3:17; 17:5; John 12:28) Even the Law that God gave to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai was transmitted by angels, although Moses was represented as talking directly with God himself. Regarding this, the apostle Paul wrote: “Why, then, the Law? It was added to make transgressions manifest, until the seed should arrive to whom the promise had been made; and it was transmitted through angels by the hand of a mediator.”—Galatians 3:19.
That Moses actually spoke with an angel who was personally representing God is also indicated at Acts 7:38, which states: “This is he that came to be among the congregation in the wilderness with the angel that spoke to him on Mount Sinai and with our forefathers.” That angel was the personal spokesman for Jehovah God, the Creator, and so he spoke to Moses as if God himself were speaking.
The angel who delivered God’s message to Moses at the burning thornbush was also a spokesman. He is identified as Jehovah’s angel at Exodus 3:2, where we are told: “Jehovah’s angel appeared to him in a flame of fire in the midst of a thornbush.” Ex 3 Verse 4 says: “When Jehovah saw that he turned aside to inspect, God at once called to him out of the midst of the thornbush.” In Ex 3 verse 6, this angelic spokesman for God said: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” So when speaking with this personal representative of God, Moses spoke as if he were speaking to Jehovah himself.—Exodus 4:10.
In the 6th chapter of Judges, we find another example of a man speaking to God through an angelic representative. Jg 6 Verse 11 identifies the message bearer as “Jehovah’s angel.” There we read: “Later Jehovah’s angel came and sat under the big tree that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while Gideon his son was beating out wheat in the winepress so as to get it quickly out of the sight of Midian.” This messenger, “Jehovah’s angel,” is thereafter represented as if he were Jehovah God himself. In Jg 6 verses 14 and 15, we read: “Upon that Jehovah faced [Gideon] and said: ‘Go in this power of yours, and you will certainly save Israel out of Midian’s palm. Do I not send you?’ In turn he said to him: ‘Excuse me, Jehovah. With what shall I save Israel?’” So the materialized angel seen by Gideon and with whom he spoke is represented in the Biblical account as if he were God himself. In Jg 6 verse 22, Gideon says: “I have seen Jehovah’s angel face to face!” The angel spoke precisely what God told him to speak. Therefore, Gideon spoke with God through this angelic spokesman.
Consider, too, the case of Manoah and his wife, the parents of Samson. This account also speaks of the angelic messenger as “Jehovah’s angel” and “the angel of the true God.” (Judges 13:2-18) In Jg 13 verse 22, Manoah says to his wife: “We shall positively die, because it is God that we have seen.” Although he did not actually see Jehovah God, Manoah felt that way because he had seen the materialized personal spokesman for God.
“No Man Has Seen God”
Now it is possible to understand why Abraham addressed the materialized angelic spokesman of God as if he were talking to Jehovah God himself. Since this angel spoke precisely what God wanted to have said to Abraham and was there personally representing Him, the Biblical record could say that “Jehovah appeared to him.”—Genesis 18:1.
Remember that an angelic spokesman for God could transmit His messages just as precisely as a telephone or a radio can transmit our words to another person. Hence, it can be understood how Abraham, Moses, Manoah, and others could speak with a materialized angel as if they were talking to God. While such individuals were able to see these angels and the glory of Jehovah reflected by them, they were not able to see God. Therefore, this in no way contradicts the apostle John’s statement: “No man has seen God at any time.” (John 1:18) What these men saw were angelic representatives and not God himself.