I Just Want to See His Face: A Consideration of Encounters with the Divine

A note on the image for this post: This painting of Jesus Christ from the Shroud of Turin, by an unknown artist of the 20th century, is housed in the Church of San Giuseppe in Turin, Italy.  

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

                                                                                   —Genesis 32:30

And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

                                                                                  —Exodus 3:4

Sometimes you need somebody, if you have somebody to love.
Sometimes you ain’t got nobody and you want somebody to love.
Then you don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus,
You just want to see His face.
You don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus,
You just want to see His face.

                                                             —Mick  Jagger  / Keith Richards

If you could see God, which in John 1:18 “no man has seen”, would you want to?  And if you could look at him, could you stand to be in his presence?  For all we know, it would be like an atomic explosion, such a concentration of energy that it obliterates everything in its path.  This, certainly, was the fear of the Hebrews.  They left that for Moses to do.  And even Moses, whose engagement with God was unique, did so with limitations.  God granted Moses a vision, but only a partial glimpse for, as he said, “You cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live.”  The solution is found in Exodus 32:23: as God passed by, he would take away his hand, saying “and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”

The intense glory of God’s presence is commented upon in notes in the Jerusalem Bible for Exodus 33:18-20.  There are abundant scriptural references for those who wish to follow them, but I will provide only the text: “God’s sanctity is so removed from man’s unworthiness that man must perish if he looks on God or even hears his voice.  For this reason Moses, Elijah, and even the seraphim cover their faces in his presence.  The man who remains alive after seeing God is overwhelmed with astonishment and gratitude and with awe.  It is a favour God rarely concedes, he grants it to Moses his ‘friend’, and to Elijah, the two who looked on the New Testament theophany, the transfiguration of Christ. Hence in Christian tradition Moses and Elijah (together with St Paul, 2Co 12:1f) are the three pre-eminent mystics.  In the New Testament the ‘glory’ of God is manifested in Jesus, who alone has gazed on the Father. Man cannot look on God’s face except in heaven.”   

So it is that we may behold God’s glory, represented in so much spiritual literature as shining like the brilliance of the sun, but in an indirect manner.  We can feel the warmth and joy of God’s presence.  As John says in verse 4:24 “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” 

What, then, of the account in Genesis of God walking in the Garden of Eden and talking familiarly with Adam?  Nearly all spiritual literature has a mythological component.  Myths are not lies, but are vehicles for revealing deeper truths.  So it is with the Genesis story, constructed, as are the other books of the Torah (or Pentateuch in Greek, the first five books of the Bible), from four different sources.  It is a great literary heritage, and not one to be disparaged.  We are enriched by the creation story, Moses on the mountain, and others. Harry Emerson Fosdick, in his book A Guide to Understanding the Bible, sheds some light upon these reported encounters: “Involved in this early idea of Yahweh was, of course, anthropomorphism.  At first he was pictured with frank physical realism.  It is difficult to determine when the ascription to him of hands, feet, face, eyes, ears, and nose, passes over into symbolism, but such expressions have behind them, as the records show, a thoroughly anthropomorphic idea of deity.  He walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day and talked familiarly with Adam; he ate and conversed with Abraham; he wrestled with Jacob so that the patriarch said, ‘I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’ ” God was able to smell the sweet odor of sacrifice and, beyond anthropomorphism, displayed anthropopathism, the display of human emotions, as abundantly recorded throughout the Old Testament, as Fosdick writes: “hatred, jealousy, vindictiveness, disappointment at unforeseen events, regret for mistaken decisions—the common characteristic attitudes of man at his worst, as well as his best” [ pp 8-10]. Ideas on the nature of God continued to evolve.  The change, for example, from eating and drinking the food offerings to smelling the “incense” of offerings which were burnt, led to the abolition in later Judaism of all idolatry, “graven images”, including any representation of Yahweh. 

What about humans being created in God’s own image, for in Genesis 1:26-27 “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”  Now this is clearly anthropomorphic, but could it also be understood that we possess the latent image of God that, manifested in us, links us to the Divine Person?  This is only a conjecture, but should be mentioned as a part of the discussion.

Then there is Jacob.  At a place he later named Peniel (“Face of God”), Jacob wrestled (Genesis 32:24–32) “with a man” (“the angel” in Hosea 12:4) “till the break of day.” This episode resulted in God (or the angel) changing Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28) which literally means, “He who struggles with God.”  Although Jacob said he had struggled with and seen the face of God, this  was evidently an intermediary, an angel.  Angelic encounters are many in scripture and in human experience.  The angel as God’s intermediary should not be excluded as part of the revelatory process.  It’s possible that Jacob knew that angels were up to something, because in chapter 32, when he was on his way to meet Esau “angels of God met him, and on seeing them he said, ‘This is God’s camp’, and he named the place Mahanaim.”  Notes to the King James Version translate the name as “two camps” (one for Jacob, one for the angels?). 

Another encounter is that of Abraham with the High Priest Melchizedek.  He is a mysterious figure who blessed Abraham and brought bread and wine, and is said to serve as a precursor to Christ. This messianic hope is part of Psalm 110:4: “Yahweh has sworn an oath which he never will never retract, ‘You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever’.”  This is cited in Hebrews as an indicator that Jesus, the Messiah, had a right to a priesthood pre-dating that of the Jewish Aaronic priesthood.  Here, Melchizedek the ‘king of righteousness’ and ‘king of peace’ is  explicitly associated with the ‘eternal priesthood’ of the Son of God.  In Hebrews 5:5–6: “Nor did Christ give himself the glory of becoming high priest, but he had it from the one who said to him: ‘You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever’.” A collection of early Gnostic texts dating on or before the 4th century, discovered in 1945 and known as the Nag Hammadi library, contains The Coming of the Son of God Melchizedek, also proposing that Melchizedek is Jesus Christ.

Adam and Eve, Jacob, Abraham—These are just a few of many theophanies in scripture, a term for God seeking to break through to human awareness, of which there are the sub-categories of Christophany and angelophany, or the more inclusive term hierophany, covering all manifestations.  Whether mythical or actual, these lend support for Divine Personhood as the nature of Being, the main purpose for this site and the explorations in it.

But these scriptural accounts and affirmations are no substitute for personal encounters, and  in the case of Jesus there have been many.  Phillip H. Wiebe has documented numerous contemporary appearances in two works: Visions of Jesus: Direct Encounters from the New Testament to Today and Visions and Appearances of Jesus.  Here is one such account (as reported by Bart Ehrman): “Of particular interest are instances in which Jesus is said to have appeared to entire groups of people, rather than just to an individual.  No case is more intriguing than the last one Wiebe recounts in his study, that of Kenneth Logie, a preacher in a Pentecostal Holiness Church in Oakland California in the 1950s.   There are two appearances worth detailing.  The first occurred in April of 1954.  Logie was preaching at an evening service.  In the middle of his sermon, around 9:15 p.m., the door to the church opened up, Jesus walked in and came down to the aisle smiling to people on the right and the left.  He then walked through (not around) the pulpit and placed his hand on Logies’ shoulder.  Logie, understandably, collapsed.  Jesus spoke to him in an unknown foreign tongue, and Logie revived enough to reply to him in English, having understood what was said.   Wiebe tells us that fifty people were there and witnessed the event.  Strange things happen.   But what happened five years later was even stranger.  This one was seen by two hundred people, who confirmed they had seen it.  And remarkably, it was captured on film.  The reason it was captured on film, Logie later indicated, was because very strange things had been happening in the church and they wanted to document it on 8 millimeter.  Wiebe himself saw the film in 1965.    A woman from the congregation was standing to give her testimony, when suddenly she disappeared and was replaced by a male figure who was obviously Jesus.  He was wearing sandals and a glistening white robe, and he had nail prints in his hand.  His hands were dripping with oil.  After several minutes, during which he apparently said nothing, he disappeared and the woman reappeared.  Unfortunately, by the time Wiebe had decided to write the book, some twenty-six years after first seeing the film of the event, the film had disappeared.   Logie claimed it had been stolen.   Still,

Wiebe was able still to find, and interview, five people who were there and agreed that they saw it happen.   Moreover, there still were surviving photographs of the other odd occurrences in the church back in 1959: images of hands, hearts, and crosses had started to appear from nowhere on the church walls, with liquid like oil flowing from them, and a fragrance being emitted.  The walls were checked by a skeptic, and there was no natural explanation for these appearances (no hidden windows or the like).   Wiebe has seen the photographs.  Skeptics may point out that the time between when these events allegedly happened in the 1950s and Wiebe’s written account about of them amounts to several decades, and that may indeed raise some suspicions of the accuracy of the witnesses’ memories.   But Wiebe points out that it is  about the same amount of time between the life of Jesus and the earliest Gospels.” 

It is Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, who has provided a vision so stunning that I feel all Christians should be aware of it, though, surprisingly, it is not widely known [Paramahansa Yogananda.  The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ within you: a revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus. Self-Realization Fellowship, 2004].  Here is his account: “I was sitting in my darkened room in meditation, praying deeply from my soul, when suddenly the blackness gave way to a celestial opal-blue effulgence.  The entire room was like an opal flame.  In that light the radiant form of the blessed Lord Jesus appeared.  His face was divine.  His appearance was of a young man in his twenties, with sparse beard and moustache; his long black hair, parted in the middle, had a golden light about it.  His feet were not touching the floor.  His eyes were the most beautiful, the most loving eyes I have ever seen.  The whole universe I saw glistening in those eyes.  They were infinitely changing, and with each transition of expression I intuitively understood the wisdom conveyed.  In his glorious eyes I felt the power that upholds and commands the myriad worlds.  As he gazed down at me, a Holy Grail appeared at his mouth.  It descended to my lips and touched them; then went up again to Jesus.  After a few moments of rapt silent communion, he said to me: ‘Thou dost drink of the same cup of which I drink.’  At that I bowed down.  I was joyous beyond dreams to receive the testimony of his blessings, of his presence.  Exactly the words that he said to me in this vision he also said to Thomas, which I never read before.  His words meant that I was drinking of his wisdom through the Holy Grail of his perceptions which he has dropped in my consciousness, and he was pleased.”  [Footnote to Yogananda’s account: “Jesus’ words are recorded in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, verse 13: (Jesus speaks) “ ‘Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.’ Jesus said, ‘I am not your master.  Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.’ ”  Elsewhere in the Gospel of Thomas (verse 108), Jesus declares: “He who will drink from my mouth will become like me.  I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” Yogananda had not yet read the Gospel of Thomas because at the time of his vision the Nag Hammadi scriptures had not yet been published.]  [Yogananda concludes] “He approved very dearly and blessed me for writing these interpretations.  This I can say without pride, because the interpretation of Christ’s word herein is not mine.  It has been given to me.  I am happy this book is coming through me; but I am not the author.  It is Christ. I am only the vehicle through which it is explained.”

All accounts, mythical and otherwise, fill us with joy and wonder, for that is the experience of the divine.  In real time as well, to see Jesus, to be granted a vision such as that of the Transfiguration, at the tomb on Easter, on the road to Emmaus, by the Galilean Sea, or in Paul’s vision, is one that we dare not hope for, but the historical record shows that it can happen just the same.  Whether it happens or not, we can be content to live in the presence of Divine Personhood and proclaim its glory.   

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