Coram Deo: A Theology of the Face

Face as Presence

In the Bible often the word for “face” is a metonymy for “presence.” Frequently our English translations actually translate the Hebrew and Greek terms for face (פָּנֶה, panėh; πρόσωπον, prosōpon) just with the word “presence”. For example,

  • “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence (panėh) of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” – Genesis 3:8
  • “Then Cain went away from the presence (panėh) of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” – Genesis 4:16
  • And [God] said, “My presence (panėh) will go with you, and I will give you rest.” – Exodus 33:14
  • “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence (prosōpon) of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” – 2 Thessalonians 1:9
  • “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence (prosōpon) of the Lord.” – Acts 3:19-20
  • “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence (prosōpon) of God on our behalf.” – Hebrews 9:24

While we should be careful with anthropomorphisms like these (God does not have a “face” the way you or I do, He is a spirit; cf. John 4:24), there are good Biblical reasons for thinking that the concept of “presence” is somehow linked to the human face. The Bible does not only use “face” as a kind of cipher for “presence,” but expands upon the facial imagery as it relates to presence in such a way that it appears that the Biblical authors genuinely assume that it is someone’s face that conveys their person, their unique relational presence.

God’s Face

In Exodus 33:11 we are told that when Moses would enter the tent of meeting, he would speak with Yahweh “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend,” assuming that speaking “face to face” implies intimacy and relationship (cf. Num 12:7). Despite Moses’ “face to face” interactions with God, he is still unable to enter fully into God’s unmediated presence. Shortly after this God tells Moses that, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live…you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen,” (Ex 33:20, 23; cf. Gen. 32:30; Deut. 5:24; Judg. 6:22, 23; 13:22; Isa. 6:5; Rev. 1:17). The point here is that these are metaphors to describe seeing God directly (face) and indirectly (back)–but it is significant that it is seeing God’s face that is used as the metaphor of unmediated access to God, unmediated access that is only currently available to angels (Matt 18:10; Luke 1:19).

The psalmists lament when God hides His face from them (Ps. 13:1; 27:9; 44:25; cf. Job 13:24), and longs for the day when they will get to behold (lit. “see”) His face (Ps. 11:7; 17:15; cf. Job 33:26). The Aaronic blessing is a request for God’s face to “shine” upon and be “lifted up towards” Israel (Num 6:24-26; cf. Ps 4:6; Ps. 31:16; 67:1; 80:3, 7, 19; 119:135; Dan. 9:17).

Further, when God is displeased with something He hides or turns His face away from it (Gen. 4:13; Deut 31:17; Mic 3:4; Isa 59:2). When God is actively opposing someone He “sets His face against them” (Lev 17:10; 26:17), but it is impossible for God to turn His face away from His people when they repent (Ps 22:24; 2 Chron. 30:9). It is specifically God’s face that the reprobate are fleeing from on the last day of judgment (Rev 6:16). Those who “provoke God to His face” are those who sin against God openly and flagrantly (Is 65:3). David asks God to “hide his face” from his sins, to forget them (Ps 51:9). Finally, we are told that we ought to “seek God’s face” because in seeking His face, we seek Him (Ps 24:6; 27:8; 105:4).

There are other ways the Bible describes God’s presence, but why do the authors of Scripture repeatedly use the anthropomorphism of God’s face in all these ways? Because they assume that it is through the face and what one does with it that one’s presence, their person is most clearly mediated.

Man’s Face

This is demonstrated as well in describing human faces in the Bible. When Sarai was cruel to Hagar, Hagar fled from Sarai’s “panėh” (Gen 16:6, 8). After Pharaoh discovers that Moses killed a guard, Moses fled from Pharaoh’s “panėh” (Ex 2:15). Jacob can use the term as a substitute for a pronoun (his brother, Esau), “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me,” (Gen 32:21). The face not only represents persons, but reveals the inner world of a person. After Jacob had deceived Laban, he saw the “panėh” of Laban and, “saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before,” (Gen 31:2). The face reveals sadness (Gen 40:7), disappointment and resentment (Gen 4:7), pleasure or approval (Prov 16:15), and satisfaction in wise choices (Eccl 8:1). It is one of the main windows into an individual’s emotional state: “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed,” (Prov 15:13). When David’s son, Absalom dies, his face is such a transparent window into his own sorrow that he must hide it (2 Sam 19:4).

Interestingly, it is after Moses’ discussions “face to face” that his own face literally shines (Ex 34:29-35). It was so unsettling to the Israelites that Moses had to wear a veil that covered his face when interacting with his fellow Hebrews. But he would always take the veil off when going into the presence of God (Ex 34:34).

The God-Man’s Face

Though God is spirit and thus has no body, this is no longer true of the second member of the Trinity, God the Son. He took on flesh as Jesus Christ and then literally possessed a human face. Paul believes that Jesus has become “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) and now God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” (2 Cor 4:6). When Thomas asks for Jesus to show him the Father, Jesus’ response is: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9. Jesus takes what the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament alluded to and makes them actual. He is God in the flesh.

The Beatific Vision, Now

Paul believes that people who reject Christ now are like the Israelites looking at Moses’ veiled face–they are blinded from encountering God’s presence in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 3:7-15). But when we receive Christ, we now with “unveiled face” are “beholding the glory of the Lord,” (2 Cor 3:18). In other words, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the arrival of Jesus Christ, we all can experience what Moses experienced. Only, what we now experience is of even more glory than what Moses experienced (2 Cor 3:8-9). We now are proleptically experiencing the beatific vision–we can see God’s face. That is, we can come into His unmediated presence through the indwelling of the Spirit. We are already “seated in the heavenly places” with Christ (Eph 2:6).

The beatific vision is the great hope of the Christian: “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads,” Rev 22:3-4 (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 John 3:2; 1 Cor 13:12).

You’ll notice that this is a future vision. We will see God’s face and then we will be “like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2). We will be like him! And while this is true, we must wait for it. It is not now, but to come.

And yet, somehow through the Spirit the future has been pulled back into the present. Look again at the full verse from 2 Cor 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” We are progressively experiencing the transformation now that will one day be consummated when Christ returns again. One day we will be fully glorified, but our sanctification takes place now where we are currently being “conformed to the image of Christ” (Rom 8:29). One day, we will see God with our eyes; now, we see him with the “eyes of our heart” (Eph 1:18)–we are able to enter His presence (Heb 4:15-16) and therefore experience the gradual, “from one degree to another,” transformation that comes from beholding God’s face. But one day, we will enter God’s presence not just with our hearts, but with glorified bodies. And we shall see His face.

Conclusion

In the Bible the “face” can be used in many obvious, literal ways to refer to someone’s head, “Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness,” (Gen 9:23) or a surface, “darkness was over the face of the deep,” (Gen 1:2). But it also frequently is used to summarize a person entirely and their unique relational presence. It also serves as a window into which an individual’s heart is revealed. Most importantly, it is frequently used to refer to God’s own presence and relational invitation that, when sought, will purify us and make us whole. It is through Jesus Christ that the face of God is revealed most clearly and, through the indwelling of the Spirit, is something we can behold now, even as we await the day when we shall behold Him in fullness, “face to face.”

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