It was a significant moment for some individuals when they saw the face of the infant Jesus. The Magi “saw the Child…and worshiped Him” (Matt 2:11). The shepherds “found…the baby.…When they had seen this…the shepherds returned, glorifying and praise God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:16, 17, 20). Likewise, Simeon was promised “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26) and would later say with the infant Jesus in his arms, “My eyes have seen Your salvation” (Luke 2:30). A proper perception of Jesus can only lead to worship because we see salvation in Him.
In the Scriptures as a whole, the story of looking on the face of God is one just one way to see the story of the gospel.
From an Innocent Look
In the beginning, man regularly saw the face of God. After Adam and Eve sinned, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and…hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen 3:8). (“Presence,” pānêh, could be translated “face” or at least assumes its visibility in this setting.) Apparently, Adam and Eve were accustomed to walking with the pre-incarnate Son of God in the garden before the fall of man into sin. He likely appeared to them as a man, showing His face to them.
To an Occasional Glimpse
As a consequence of sin, man lost the privilege of regularly being in God’s presence and seeing His face (cf. Gen 3:22–24). In fact, man’s sinfulness led to fearing the presence and face of God. Just as Adam and Eve hid in the garden, so also men such as Moses, Elijah, and Manoah feared to look upon God (Exod 3:6; Judg 13:22; 1 Kgs 19:13). The rarity of seeing His face shifted language about the matter to become figurative for blessing and not to be understood in a literal manner (e.g., Num 6:24–26; Ps 11:7; 17:15; 31:16; 67:1; 80:3, 7, 19, 119:135). If anyone was to look upon the face of God, it was typically a prophet, and even then, to look upon God’s face was rare. Moses illustrates this fact. As he himself recounted, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod 33:11), something so rare that it would later be said at his death, “Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut 34:10).
But Look Again
But then, God sent His Son, and in seeing the Son, man also saw the Father. As Jesus said, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him” (John 14:7). His person, face included, had “no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to him” (Isa 53:2). At the same time, in showing us the Father, He was and “is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb 1:3).
So, though God had once banished man from being able to regularly see His face, He showed it on occasion and spoke regularly to Moses. Then, God the Son walked among man, and all who saw Him could see that God was now graciously speaking to man through His Son. How would they react?
Though some believed, the greater number eventually marred the face of Jesus, showing what he thought of Him as a whole. With words spoken on His behalf before His time, Jesus could have said, “I gave My back to those who strike Me, And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting” (Isa 50:6). Told by Mark, “Some began to spit at Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him with their fists, and to say to Him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the officers received Him with slaps in the face” (Mark 14:65).
Then, the Son of God was put on the cross, and as darkness overtook Golgotha, so also the Father forsook His Son. Perhaps we could say that He looked away from His face so that His Son who knew no sin could become sin for you and me so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (Mark 15:33–34; 2 Cor 5:21).
And See Him Now
And now, to our advantage (cf. John 16:7), we no longer physically see our Savior’s face. Rather, we see His face through the gospel. God makes our Savior’s face clear to us by pouring His light into our hearts and revealing to us the knowledge of His glory concerning our salvation through His Son (2 Cor 4:6). And while not seeing our Savior with the eyes of our heads, we see Him with the eyes of our hearts, believe in Him, love Him, and are eternally blessed for doing so (John 20:29; 1 Pet 1:8; cf. Eph 1:18). As we keep our eyes fixed upon Him, we run our Christian race until we one day join Him in heaven (Heb 12:1–2).
And See Him Fully in Time to Come
When we get there, we will be “face to face” with Jesus, knowing Him fully as we shall be fully known (1 Cor 13:12). We will be glorified and thus be “like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). And for us at that time, “They shall see His face” (Rev 22:4). What Adam lost long ago, we shall have in perfection and with no potential to lose it again.
May we see Jesus as the Magi, shepherds, and Simeon saw Him long ago—not only with our eyes, but also with our hearts, worshiping Him because we truly see Him for who He is, the Savior of the world. And may we thereby see His face one day when it shines on us forevermore.