The Old Testament Scriptures have many references to human beings not being able to see God and live. God told Moses, one of the greatest saints in the Bible, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20, ESV)
When Gideon saw the angel of the Lord he did not rejoice. Instead he said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” (Judges 6:22, ESV) Isaiah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, felt the same way: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV)
This notion of not being able to see God and live goes all the way back to the early days of creation when Adam and Eve fell into sin by eating the forbidden fruit. The first thing they did was try to hide themselves from each other by covering their naked bodies. Then, in the cool of the day when God came for a visit, they tried to hide from him. (Genesis 3:1-8)
Does this idea that seeing God will kill you carry through to the New Testament? Apparently not. Jesus tells Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51, ESV)
And as Stephen was being stoned to death for his faith he cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56, ESV)
So what changed? How did people go from being terrified to see God in the Old Testament to being not afraid to see God in the New Testament? The answer is Jesus. But not just any Jesus, Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh.
The season of the church year we are now in is called the Epiphany season. The word epiphany means “appearing” and in a religious context it refers to the appearance of a divine being or a moment of sudden revelation or insight.
The Christian understanding of epiphany is the revelation that the one, true, eternal God has revealed himself, not in some awe-inspiring, God-like way, but in the humble, human flesh of Jesus.
One of the ascriptions of praise to God that is used during the Epiphany season says it well, “For what had been hidden from before the foundation of the world you have made known to the nations in your Son. In him, being found in the substance of our mortal nature, you have manifested the fullness of your glory.”
So no wonder the fear of seeing God and dying was eliminated in the New Testament. The God of the New Testament looked just like the people he came to save. Were it not for his many miracles, intense teaching, pure goodness and a few other remarkable occurrences Jesus would have passed for just another Jewish man of the First Century. In Jesus, God came to us in a most approachable way, in the substance of our mortal nature.
Yet there is one way that Jesus, even in his humanity, still kills people. Jesus kills us when we realize that he died for us on the cross. It does not kill us when we see Jesus dying on the cross. It kills us when we see Jesus dying for us on the cross. There is an important difference. If Jesus’ death on the cross was a mistake or some kind of symbolic gesture it has little impact on our lives. But Jesus’ death on the cross truly frees us from the death and eternal destruction that we deserve because of our sins. So now all our efforts to gain salvation by our own efforts turn to dust; our richest gain is counted as loss and contempt is poured on all our pride.
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, ESV)
And he [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23, ESV)
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, ESV) The Scriptural evidence is pretty clear; Jesus’ death on the cross is my death; his resurrection is my resurrection.
Another Christian prayer starts with words that drive away any fear that we sinners might have in seeing God: “O God, our Maker and Redeemer, you wonderfully created us and in the incarnation of your Son yet more wondrously restored our human nature.”