May 10, 2022 Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS)

How Did Moses Speak to God “Face to Face?”

How Did Moses Speak to God “Face to Face?”

A question was asked how can Moses be said to speak to God “Face to Face,” and yet at the same time the Bible says “no man shall see me and live?” This is a good question and it speaks to the issue of how the Bible communicates its truth to mankind. 


As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. By that we mean that through the inspiration of the biblical authors by the Holy Spirit, God speaks to mankind. Additionally, we believe God to be divine, that is not like His creation. God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. God, in a word, is transcendent, meaning He is far beyond what human beings can comprehend. 


The Bible teaches the transcendence of God in passages such as Job 11:7-9: 


[Job 11:7-9 NKJV] 7 “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty? 8 They are higher than heaven––what can you do? Deeper than Sheol––what can you know? 9 Their measure is longer than the earth And broader than the sea.”


We also know through the Bible that God is a spirit and that He is invisible:


[John 4:24 NKJV] 24 “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”


[1 Timothy 1:17 NKJV] 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Finally, God is holy and pure and that nothing that is unholy can survive within His presence:


[Habakkuk 1:13 NKJV] 13 You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, And cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, And hold Your tongue when the wicked devours A person more righteous than he? 


[Hebrews 12:29 NKJV] 29 For our God is a consuming fire.


Putting this all together, it’s clear that we cannot see God because He is: (1) Transcendent; (2) Invisible; and (3) Holy. Thus it should not surprise us that God told Moses in Exodus 33:20, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”


So then, how do we square that with what we see nine verses earlier in Exodus 33:11, “So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle?” This goes back to what we said at the beginning about how the Bible communicates its truth to human beings. You see, there are some who would deny that the Bible is God’s Word on the basis of how can a God who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable communicate to creatures who are finite, temporal, and changeable? How can we bridge the gap between the human and divine?


Since the finite cannot reach the infinite, it is incumbent upon the infinite to accommodate itself to the finite. That is exactly what the Scriptures do. Through the Bible, God accommodates Himself to us, He speaks in a way in which we can understand. Allow me to illustrate this. How does an adult communicate to a child? The adult must speak in a way that the child understands. John Calvin said that God in the Bible, “lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”


So in Exodus 33:11, when it’s said that God speaks to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend,” this is using the language of accommodation to communicate a vital truth to us. Moses isn’t literally speaking to God “face to face,” for several reasons. First, God doesn’t have a “face.” Second, God is a spirit, and thus invisible. Third, Moses would be consumed by God’s holiness were he to appear before His presence unprotected. But the language of “face to face” is meant to suggest intimacy and friendship. God spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend. God had a special relationship with Moses that He didn’t have with anyone else in all of Scripture.


Additionally, if you look at the context of both verses of Exodus 33, you will see a vital difference. In Exodus 33:11, the context is speaking of how Moses met with God in the tabernacle. Moses would enter the tabernacle and the Shekinah Cloud (the visible manifestation of God in the pillar of cloud and fire) would descend upon the tent. That’s when God spoke with Moses. Later on in Exodus 33, Moses asks to see God’s glory (33:18). In other words, Moses asks to see God in all his magnificent splendor. That’s when God tells Moses that no man can see Him and live. The Shekinah Cloud, while a manifestation of God, is a veiled manifestation of God; it is not the full brilliance of His glory.


But primarily, the language of speaking with God “face to face” is meant to convey the idea of the special relationship God had with Moses. The awesome thing is that in Jesus Christ, the fullness of God dwelt in bodily form. Jesus Christ is the final and perfect revelation of God. Jesus Christ is the One sent by the Father to “exegete” (explain) Him to us. God accommodated Himself to the point of taking on a human nature and dwelling among us. And now the Holy Spirit dwells within us so that “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, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).


~Pastor Carl