Can We Ever See God or Not?
We’re back for another week of answering your tough pastoral and ethical and biblical questions. Today’s question comes to us from Eric in Joliet, Illinois. “Pastor John, hello! 1 Timothy 6:16 says that no one can see God and yet Matthew 5:8 tells us that the pure in heart WILL see God. Is there a sense in which we will be able to ‘see’ God in heaven? Or is it talking about the incarnate and glorified Christ? It’s a powerful promise, and I want to understand it.”
Let’s put the texts he refers to and a few others in front of us and then see if we can answer the question.
- 1 Timothy 6:15–17, “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.”
- 1 Timothy 1:17, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory.”
- 1 John 4:12, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us.”
- Exodus 33:20, “He [God] said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’”
- Deuteronomy 4:12, “Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.”
That is one side. You can’t see him.
Now, here is the other side:
- Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
- Genesis 32:30, “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered [or spared].’”
- Job 19:26–27, “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
Pursue purity so that you can see God’s beauty now, and so that you will see him face to face after death.
So, there you have both sides of the issue. And the solution to this seeming inconsistency lies in the fact that the word “see” as we all know has several different uses. And if you look at all of the texts, you see there is one of them. You see that there are two different senses in which his people can see God and two senses in which they cannot see God. So, let me break these out and see if people can follow me. See if they can see.
First, the ways we cannot see God:
1. We can’t see God with our physical eyes for the simple reason that he is a spirit, and he doesn’t have a body. That is probably at least part of what Paul means when he says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15).
2. We can’t see God even spiritually with unmediated directness. This is partly owing to our sinfulness and partly owing, perhaps, to our creaturely weakness. He is too great, too bright, too glorious, and we could not live if we saw him with unmediated directness. We must always have Christ our Mediator as a go-between. And I think that is what Jesus meant when he says in John 6:45–46, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me — not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.”
Now, when it says, “except he who is from God; he has seen the Father,” he means, not with physical eyes. The Son of God didn’t have physical eyes before the incarnation, and that is what he is contrasting our seeing with. Only the Son can see the Father with non-physical, unmediated, direct seeing. We cannot see God spiritually the way the Son of God in unmediated directness can see him. So, those are the two ways we can’t see God when we use the word “see” in different ways.
Here are the two ways we can see God:
1. We use the word “see” to mean that we finally understand and discern the beauty and glory of God after being blind to it. Like when we say: Oh, now I see. Our soul is tuned in to the glory so that the glory of God that shines through the gospel is seen as glorious, and we are no longer spiritually blind to it. That is the first way we see him.
“To see God’s glory is to understand and discern the beauty of God after being blind to it.”
2. And the second way is that, in the narrative of the Bible, we see the glory of God and finally we will see him face to face through Christ — by seeing Christ. So, John 1:14, 18 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” So, we see God by seeing Jesus. And 1 John 3:2, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
So, the implication is: Pursue purity of heart, purity of faith, purity of life so that your heart is able to see God’s beauty as what it really is in the Scripture, and so that, when he comes or when he calls us in death, we will see him face to face and be glorified with him.