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The face of Christ

April 2017 | by Nigel Faithfull

Once, when saying bedtime prayers with a grandson, he asked why he couldn’t see God, saying, ‘It would be easier to believe in him if I could’.

This was not such a childish question. Moses made the same request, but God replied, ‘You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live’ (Exodus 33:20). Jesus told the Samaritan woman, ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24). In other words, God the Father is an invisible spirit.

My grandson had to be satisfied that, when Jesus was on earth people could certainly see him, but Jesus is now in heaven and will come again for those who love him and trust him as their Saviour.

In the meantime, we note Jesus’ words to Thomas: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:28). We will never see God the Father, and, although John says ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5-7), he is referring to the light of truth, not a physical light we can see.

Nevertheless, John had physically seen and touched Jesus (1 John 1:1). And we read in Hebrews that Jesus is ‘the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3). Clearly, Jesus Christ is the visible manifestation of God.

On one occasion, he told Philip, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). John confirmed: ‘No one has ever seen God [the Father]; the only God [the Son], who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known’ (John 1:18, ESV).

Seeing but not believing

Would it be easier to believe if we could see him today? I don’t think so. The evidence for saying this is in the Gospels.

Jesus came from heaven, laying aside his outward glory and identifying with sinful mankind, though remaining sinless. Although people saw him, ate with him and witnessed his many miracles, the majority despised him and rejected his claims to be the Messiah. Because they had seen him growing up amongst them at Nazareth, they said, ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? … And they took offence at him’ (Matthew 13:54-57).

Scripture sometimes describes a person’s features, but mainly focuses on what they believe and how they behave. When Samuel was identifying Israel’s future king, and Eliab stood before him, God said, ‘Do not look on his appearance … man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7).

A few verses later, David is described as ‘ruddy and [with] beautiful eyes and … handsome’, but our Lord was not so described, even though he was ‘great David’s greater Son’. In fact, Isaiah wrote, ‘He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isaiah 53:26).

He didn’t come to be looked at and worshipped like a film star. He came in humility to fulfil his Father’s will, that he should be a sacrifice to make atonement for the sins of the world.

Imagining Christ

The images of Christ we see in paintings are pure conjecture. The pale face with full beard and long hair were first portrayed in the 6th century, and have since become standard. His portrayal often betrays the ethnicity of the country and culture familiar to the artist.

First century rabbis, observing the ban on images, would have been horrified at any attempted likeness to deity (Exodus 20:4-6), and no contemporaneous drawings of Jesus exist. Moreover, John’s description of Christ in glory in Revelation 1 bears little resemblance to how he appeared in his humiliation.

At the communion service, we may try to imagine the scene of our Lord participating at the Passover meal with his disciples, or suffering on the cross. We must indeed ‘fix our eyes on Jesus’ (Hebrews 12:2, NIV), and should be ‘looking to Jesus … who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross … and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’ (ESV), but the next verse says we are to ‘consider’ how Christ endured suffering. This shows us that we should handle it in a spiritual way. It means we are to meditate on the teaching about the person and work of Christ, and what our response to that should be, rather than trying to conjure up crucifixion scenes in our imagination.

Christ appearing

The New Testament records just a few instances of Christ’s appearing to believers after his ascension, often in the context of suffering. Stephen, while being martyred, exclaimed, ‘Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).

Saul on the Damascus road saw a light from heaven and heard the voice of Jesus (Acts 26:12-19). Matthew Henry comments: ‘Christ appeared to him (Acts 9:17; 26:16) … though those that travelled with Paul saw the light only, and not Christ in the light’. In neither of the above instances are Christ’s facial features recorded.

The apostle John was a ‘partner in tribulation’ and exiled on Patmos when God gave him a vision of Christ and ‘the things that must soon take place’ (Revelation 1:1-18). John records the extraordinary and awe-inspiring features of Christ that he saw.

The dazzling brilliance, like a white-hot furnace, symbolised his purity and power. It was far from the humble appearance of the Jesus that John had accompanied along Judaea’s dusty roads. John says, ‘When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead’.

It is awesome to think that the exalted Christ in heaven is the radiant glory of God. Are we still wishing we could ‘see’ him?

In the post-apostolic period, there are instances of believers experiencing the extraordinary presence of God in times of revival, alone or with others. Usually it is a felt rather than a seen presence.

Today, where believers are fiercely persecuted, some have reported a visible appearance, perhaps of an angel, and possibly receiving a brief message of scriptural encouragement. But when we see visions publicised, statues erected, and shrines and places of pilgrimage established, we can be sure such visions are spurious. Where the real Christ is side-lined or ignored, false worship and idolatry flourish.

Seeking God

David cried, ‘How long O Lord … How long will you hide your face from me? When he awoke he expected to behold God’s face and be satisfied with his likeness. He reminded God, ‘You have said, seek my face. My heart says to you, your face, Lord, do I seek’ (Psalm 13:1; 17:5; 27:8).

Matthew Henry comments: ‘Observe … the true nature of religious worship; it is seeking the face of God … it is only the shining of his face that will satisfy a living soul. God calls us to seek his face in our conversion to him and in our converse with him. He calls us, by the whispers of his Spirit and with our spirits, to seek his face; he calls us by his Word, by the stated returns of opportunities for his worship, and by special providences, merciful and afflictive’.

To seek God’s face is to seek his favourable disposition towards us. If God hides his face from us, perhaps because of sin in our lives, then our spiritual comfort is withdrawn and we feel as if we are about to die (Psalm 143:7). God warned the Israelites that if they continued to disobey his statutes, then, ‘I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies’ (Leviticus 26:17).

Day of opportunity

We still enjoy a day of grace, a period when anyone may seek God’s face and believe the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins. Such faith brings total forgiveness and clothes us with Christ’s own spotless righteousness, allowing us to joyfully enter heaven.

Eventually, God will terminate this day of opportunity and set his face against all that is evil. The day of judgment will have arrived.

Let us all seek his face — that glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) — and experience its shining upon us. Then, along with Thomas Olivers (1725-99), we can anticipate seeing Jesus face to face in heaven (1 Corinthians 13:12):

‘I shall behold his face,

I shall his power adore,

And sing the wonders of his grace

For evermore.’

Nigel T. Faithfull is a retired analytical chemist and member of St Mellon’s Baptist Church, Cardiff. In 2012, he published Thoughts fixed and affections flaming (Day One), concerning Matthew Henry.