Part 1: Seeing God – dimly or face-to-face?
As the story goes, the queen wanted above all else to make sure that her own face reflected in the mirror was the fairest of all. We know who is truly the fairest of them all: Jesus Christ. Sometimes we “see a dim reflection as in a mirror” (1 Co 13:12). Other times we “behold as in a mirror the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). We gaze into God’s mirror seeking to see Him more clearly – to see His beauty, to see His will, or to see His plans for us.
But seeing God can be extremely dangerous…
Seeing God in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament times, to see the living God could be lethal. The unattoned sin in human beings reacted with the holiness of God resulting in the sinner swiftly succumbing to “the wages of sin is death.” Sin and God’s presence do not mix. When God’s presence came through Egypt, the firstborn of those who opposed God died. When the people of Israel heard God’s voice and saw His power, they became fearful and thought surely they would die (Deut 5:24,25). When Israel’s leaders rebelled and presumptively attempted to offer incense in God’s presence, God burned them up (Nu 16:31-35). From then on anyone who so much as approached the tabernacle where God’s presence dwelt died (Nu. 18:22). God struck Uzzah the priest dead when he took hold of the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling from a cart (2 Sam. 6:7).
Many people saw “the angel of the Lord” (Gen. 18). Some thought they would surely die (Jud. 13:22) while others were overwhelmed with awe and the course of their lives was redirected (Ex. 3).
Moses communed “face to face” with God “as one speaks to a friend” (Ex. 33:11). The people saw God’s glory cloud descend on the tabernacle, and there within Moses “saw” and heard from God His will and commandments. However even in that awesome tangible “seeing,” some part of God was still veiled. We know this because a few verses later Moses asked to see God’s glory (v 18). Apparently the high degree of intimacy Moses had with God wasn’t sufficient. He desired a still more vivid and personal sort of interaction. He desired to see God, not only in a glory cloud but literally face to face. God replied “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (v. 20). Moses was allowed to see God’s back but not His face (v. 21-23).
In each case God revealed Himself to humans in varying degrees of clarity. But all humans were limited in their ability to see God and know His will. Moses may have been the least limited. He got as far as seeing the literal back of God. Since God is Spirit, we’re not sure how this occurred, but we know that Moses probably had by far the most intimate relationship with God of anyone in the Old Testament. Even so, God’s face was hidden from him. Even the most spiritual person may only see God’s plans, purposes and will to the extent that God permits.
Seeing God in the New Testament
The New Testament makes it clear that no one has ever actually seen God (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12). But there is one Person who has seen the full revelation of God – Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. (Jn 1:1) He has perfectly seen God, because He and the Father are one (Jn 10:30).
Now we see God the Father through God the Son. “No one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:17), yet “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (v 18). Jesus said in no uncertain terms, “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:8-9). There are many ways of seeing. The Pharisees saw Jesus and rejected Him. The disciples saw Him and believed in Him. If we only see with the natural eyes, we have not really seen, nor is Christ of any aid to us. The seeing must go deeper, where our spirit is awakened, that spark of God lying dormant in the depths of every human, that eternity waiting to be kindled by the flame of His Spirit.
In the Old Covenant the sinner coming into unlawful contact with God’s presence resulted in death. But in the New Covenant the repentant sinner coming into contact with God’s presence through Christ is made gloriously, eternally alive.. There is a fine line between the sight of God that brings death and the sight of God that brings life. God’s holy visage is a high-voltage power line. If appropriately delivered in the encasement of His Grace through Christ, it brings life. Before Christ, when inappropriately grasped or contacted by the sinner unprotected by Christ’s blood, it meant fry time! The mirror of God then was dangerous. The mirror now is glorious. But God’s holiness is unchanged.
The Prerequisite to Seeing God
Because of Christ’s substitutionary death to atone for sin, the believer no longer has to fear God’s presence as did the Israelites who declared, “this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die” (Deut 5:25). But there is still a right way and a wrong way to come before God.
Jesus told us the right way and the right attitude by which we will be granted access to God’s salvation, God’s presence and the revelation of His will:
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Mt 5:8).
What does “pure in heart” mean? We are all sinners saved by grace, and are on a journey of purifying our thoughts and actions. The mirror starts out speckled with all sorts of grime. Moses didn’t start out pure. In fact, he murdered a man! But his character was purified to such an extent that he was called “the meekest man” (Nu 12:3). Was it on account of this that he was allowed to see God at an extraordinarily high level of intimacy? But even the apostle Paul, referring to his struggle to do what was right as opposed to what his human nature desired, cried “Oh wretched man that I am!”(Ro. 7:24). Admitting he was far from perfect, he yet pressed on toward the goal (Php 3:13-14).
Perfect purity in thoughts, deeds and actions is not the prerequisite to seeing God. Otherwise none of us could ever have a relationship with Him. Purity of heart is first and foremost not something we do, but that God does in us. When a person responds with faith to the message of Christ, his sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the human spirit. This is the moment at which one’s heart is made pure. Jesus also said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Those who have a pure heart will see God. Those who are born again will see God’s Kingdom. He was saying essentially the same thing: Being “born of the Spirit” results in a “pure heart.” Both come not by works that we do, but by faith and repentance. Upon being born again, God’s Spirit takes up residence in us and we no longer desire sinful things. We yearn instead for God and His righteousness. This is purity of heart. It is what Paul meant when he said “It is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me…” (Gal 2:20).
But when we – reborn of the Spirit, purified by His blood, now look into God’s mirror, how much of Him is reflected in our own visage? The queen’s magic mirror could tell what was. It could tell the status of how things actually were. However it had no power to transform her and make her into the image she longed for. When Snow White became more beautiful than she, the queen’s solution was to hire a hit man to murder her. God’s mirror is more powerful than the queen’s magic mirror. It doesn’t reflect who we are, but who Christ is. The more we see God, the more we are transformed out of ordinary and into extraordinary. By looking into God’s mirror, we can indeed become beautiful. When the Bible talks about seeing God’s glory as in a mirror, the context isn’t about seeing the future. It’s about seeing His principles, His heart, becoming like Him and joining His mission.
There is, therefore, something for us to do. As we go through our lives, we continue to actively desire and pursue God’s will and principles. We systematically banish from our lives that which is not aligned with God’s character. We hate sin and love truth and righteousness. This is purity of heart. If we arrive at a time in our lives where we realize we are no longer desiring the things of God, it is time to repent and return to our first love (Re. 2:4-5). Walking in purity of heart and walking in the Spirit become our lifestyle. It is not us, but “it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure” (Php2:13).
God’s Mirror is Nearsighted
Because of Christ’s atoning work of redemption coupled with the ongoing work of His Spirit in transforming human hearts, Paul can make the following jubilant declaration:
“We all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
The context of this passage is sanctification. It’s about us becoming like Him. Paul is totally confident about God’s identity. He has no doubt of what defines and distinguishes the personality, ways and laws of God. When it comes to that element of seeing God, we can have complete certainty as to what is right and what is wrong.
In the above passage the glory of God that we see with such crystal clarity isn’t a discovery of direction. It isn’t a matter of seeing into the distance, the future, or what’s over the next hill. What Paul is referring to here is seeing God’s character which makes up His image, who He is, and then allowing His Spirit to transform us into that same moral shape. This is about God changing me, not me finding out where God is going today. When we look at God Himself, close-up to see His characteristics, vision is 2020.
Another passage paints a strikingly different picture of how we see God:
“Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
The mirror of 2 Cor. 3 conveyed the image of a crystal clear, pristine and accurate vision. “Unveiled face” implies nothing is obstructing our sight. “From glory to glory” implies a thrilling, awesome journey into His likeness. In 2 Cor. 3:18 Paul invites us on a glorious process of seeing “with unveiled face” God’s virtues and being transformed into His likeness by the Spirit of God. Our vision of God’s character is not foggy. It’s clear. We know what He is like and we are called to live accordingly.
But the context and the meaning of the passage in 1 Cor. 13 is different from that in 2nd Corinthians. 1st Corinthians is not talking about character development. It indicates a hazy, clouded and incomplete seeing. Only in a future time will this kind of seeing be complete. What kind of seeing then is being discussed in 1st Corinthians?
In 1st Corinthians Paul has just finished a discourse on the gifts of the Spirit (ch 12) but now makes clear that love, and the virtues it produces in a person, must undergird it all (13:1-7). Love is “the more excellent way.” It “never fails.” Some may say he is putting spiritual gifts in a secondary place to the virtues produced by love such as kindness, humility, forgiveness etc (think Fruit of the Spirit). I suggest both are essential but love must be the foundation and the base out of which all spiritual gifts are practiced. Observe that love was a big part of the “glory” that Paul summoned us to “behold with unveiled face as in a mirror.” This glory is entirely dependent on the Spirit of God to actuate it.
So we see God’s character and virtue with great clarity. Moreover as we behold it, we are transformed into His image to be His reflection. However knowledge is different. We receive knowledge imperfectly and that knowledge has a prerequisite: character and virtue. God’s mirror will only bring about glorious transformation into a beautiful creature when we base our lives upon the glory of His love and holiness which we “see with unveiled face,” and then add to it the knowledge which we “see dimly.” If we go after knowledge and the Gifts of the Spirit but neglect the discipline of cultivating the fruit of the Spirit, then we become like “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Co 13:1).”
Tongues with interpretation are an aspect of knowledge, because it is speaking forth in another language the words of God. Prophecy is declaring things which are to happen in the future or facts of which those present have no natural knowledge. Wisdom is the deep-down knowledge of how to behave or respond in a particular situation. All are about the discovery and transmission of facts which are not otherwise known.
Verse 8 is a point of contention that divides large segments of Christendom, with non-charismatics holding that “…prophecies…will cease;…tongues…will be stilled” means these manifestations of the Spirit no longer occur today. I beg to differ, since one chapter over (ch 14) Paul goes on to admonish the Church to seek the very gifts he just said will cease. So the “ceasing” must be for a date farther ahead on the timeline of history than the current era. Far from having ceased, both tongues and prophecy are amply manifested today. Healing, deliverance from demons and prophecy are all extremely important if not essential to evangelism and the advance of the Gospel message, as they demonstrate that “God’s not dead He’s surely alive, roaring like a lion!”
So when will prophecy, tongues, healing, all other spiritual manifestations, and even knowledge itself be of no further use? The answer is found in v. 9 and 12:
“We know in part and we prophesy in part… Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
When will we see Him face to face? When will we know fully, even as God knows us? On the day when Christ returns! Only in that day will “that which is perfect” have come – when our mortal bodies are perfected in resurrection glory (1 Cor 15:54), and when “all things are made new (Rev. 21:5)!”
So regarding all things associated with knowledge, in this earthly life we have only partial revelation. The character and virtue of God is clearly seen, but the knowledge of God – of His will and His creation – is not complete. The seeing isn’t 2020. It’s nearsighted. Even the best knowledge contains some element of the unknown. We don’t see the whole picture, or we see a blurred image. Why is this? Well, if we saw everything crystal clear, then where would be the place for faith? In this life on Earth, in these mortal bodies, we must “walk by faith and not by sight.” If we knew God’s will perfectly, or if we knew what tomorrow would bring, or if we could go heal everyone in the hospital whenever we chose to do so, then there would be no need of faith.
If we could see face to face now, why would we be eager for the time when He “redeems all things”? Because we cannot see perfectly now, therefore “we groan longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling” (1 Cor. 5:2). “We await eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Ro 8:23).
One glorious day we will say with Job, “I know my Redeemer lives…after my skin has been destroyed yet in my flesh I will see God.” But for now we say, “How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27). One day we will revel in the glory of the New Heaven and the New Earth, where “no longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face” (Rev 22:4).
So the time will come when we will – at last – see Him face to face. At last there will be no more nearsightedness. There will be no further need to wonder “was that really you talking to me, God?” There will be no question as to what decision God wants us to make. Now we wonder why God doesn’t heal some people, or why bad things happen to good people. When we see Him face to face, then all these questions will be answered.
All the gifts of the Spirit are to help us reveal God to the world through this season of sojourning upon the earth, when we can’t see Jesus face to face. Remember, Jesus said “I won’t leave you orphans. I’ll come to you.” And then He sent the Spirit, whose initial manifestation was through tongues and prophecy. But when Christ returns, there will be no further need of these gap-fillers. At that time we will “know even as we are known.” Because we will be forever in His immediate presence, equipped with resurrection bodies and resurrection powers, we will know the answer to all the questions.
Remember the Old Testament folks who were terrified to see the awesome glory of God on the mountain? Even Moses, the “meekest man” wasn’t able to see God’s face and live. But I believe in that day when all other knowledge and all spiritual gifts cease, we will also see the Father face to face… and we will live, because we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.
–> TO BE CONTINUED. PART 2 – “THOSE DARN REFLECTING WINDOWS AND THE END GOAL OF GOD’S MIRROR”