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An Apparent Contradiction

We often confront situations or statements in the Bible that set forth an apparent contradiction between two seemingly irreconcilable conclusions.  Such is the case regarding statements in the Bible where one writer claims “no one has ever seen God,” (John 1:18) and yet another writer proclaims, “I saw the Lord” (Isaiah 6:1). Individually, these are valid statements, yet together they form an apparent antinomy. How can it be true that no man has seen God at any time and yet Isaiah says he saw the Lord “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1)? The contradiction here is apparent, but only a simple distinction is needed to clarify matters.

Why No One Has Ever Seen God

First, we should readily affirm that “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). The reason for such an affirmation is twofold. Firstly, the creator/creature distinction is a necessary rubric for understanding why we as “man” (creature) lack the capability to see God (the Creator). When the Westminster Shorter Catechism answers fundamental questions about God’s nature, we see that Christians have long affirmed that God is a Spirit in his very essence. And that which is Spirit cannot be seen with the corporeal eyes of the creature—we simply were not endowed with the mechanisms for it.

The second aspect of the creature’s inability to see God is clearly brought out in the exchange between Moses and God in Exodus 33. Here, Moses asked God to show him his glory. He wanted God to give him his holy, unrestricted presence, since up to this point the presence of the Lord was veiled. God refused Moses’s request (Exodus 33:20) because God (the creator) knew that Moses (the creature) would be crushed by the glory-weight of his unrestricted presence. God’s denial of the full unveiling of his presence to Moses beckons us to the word of the Psalmist: “he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). God knows that man cannot bear the weight of his unrestricted presence; therefore no man has ever seen God.

Incidentally, the creator/creature distinction which explains why man as creature is incapable of seeing the unveiled essence of God is another way for us to affirm the deity of Christ. Since no man has seen the Father (his unveiled essence) except the one who is from God, yet he (Christ) has seen the Father, it is entirely appropriate to conclude that Christ is not of generated essence, but of the same essence as the Father—this is what makes it possible for Jesus to see God. Therefore, Jesus is God just as the Father is God.

But…

However, scriptural evidence compels us to rightly affirm that man has seen God, since Isaiah himself stated, “I saw the Lord . . . high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1). It is necessary at this juncture to institute a qualifier. What Isaiah saw was not the unrestricted essence of God but the divine praxis of accommodation in which the glory of God is manifested in a veiled form that can be comprehended and embraced (Exodus 3:2-6). The many theophanies (Numbers 12:5) and Christophanies (Genesis 32:22-30) in Scripture reflect this key distinction. But perhaps the best-known example of divine accommodation towards frail humanity is seen in the incarnation. Passages such as John 1:14 and Philippians 2:5-7 explain that the glory of God is veiled in flesh (the incarnation) for the purpose of coming to earth and communing with man.

In such a case, it is understandable why the New Testament writers proclaimed that they have seen God. Although veiled, the essence of God was adapted to the capabilities of the finite creature. As Calvin profoundly states, “When God exhibited himself to the view of the fathers, he never appeared such as he actually is, but such as the capacity of men could receive . . . therefore, exhibited to Isaiah (and to others) was such a form as enabled him, according to his capacity, to perceive the inconceivable majesty of God; and thus he attributes to God a throne, a robe, and a bodily appearance.”

In Need of His Presence

The relevance of this discussion in our day is not found in the expectation of a theophany or a Christophany, nor is it found in the expectation of another incarnation. The Scriptures are clear that in our day God speaks to us through the revelation of his Son, which is fully expressed in the Bible. It is most important that we understand the underlining issue here as the presence of God. All manifestations of God are for the purpose of granting his presence to his people , whether that be for the purpose of encouragement, reassurance, rebuke, wisdom, comfort, or help. The point God is trying to reveal to us is that we need his presence. In fact, we should crave it. As the deer pants for streams of water, so our souls should pant after the presence of God. All believers have God’s presence in the form of the Holy Spirit. Yet, to varying degrees, we are not cognizant of it. Intimacy with God comes by being cognizant of his presence and communing with him. Acts 4:13 says that the disciples had an aura similar to that of Jesus, and we should strive to have this said of us today.

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