God’s smiling face
You won’t have seen it like this before
“Mum, what does God look like?” I was five years old, and I had some big questions.
“Like Jesus?” she said, with a little certainty but also with some doubt. Mum had given my question her best shot, but it didn’t entirely satisfy me. I wanted evidence; ideally a photograph.
Time passed, but the question didn’t. I asked the Minister of the traditional church I grew up in the same question “what does God look like?” He responded with a well worn, but often misunderstood bible verse, “nobody can see the face of God and live.” I think he was relieved he had an answer to the question, but it didn’t answer my question. It also highlighted that the quest was getting infinitely more dangerous. Now I was risking death seeking an answer.
As time went by, I joined a less traditional church. Like a burger with the lot, this church had it all — incredible music, flags, interpretive dancers, the occasional shofar, prophetic art, many caring people and some rather challenging people. It was intense, a little dysfunctional but mostly fun.
It was here I came across people who casually relayed stories of Jesus appearing in their room, car or workplace. I was surprised, curious and somewhat annoyed. Annoyed at the often not-so-hidden air of superiority implicit in their stories and curious that I hadn’t experienced this type of encounter. While they were seeing Him like a regular at the local coffee shop, I felt like I was still waiting for my holiday postcard.
So it was to my surprise when reading one night, I caught a glimpse of the face of God.
Come on a little journey with me, and I’ll explain what I saw. I think it will surprise you as much as it still surprises me.
To do this, we need to go to the very first mention of the face of God in the Bible. We find it in the rather peculiar story of Jacob wrestling God (Genesis 32).
Jacob is the younger twin brother of Esau. He is an outright deceiver. A liar and cheater. Jacob notoriously tricks his father into giving him the ‘birthright’ and blessing that belongs to Esau. This event makes Esau so furious that he wants to strangle the life out of his brother. Why? Like many things in life, it comes down to ‘gold’ and ‘glory.’ He had been cheated out of ‘head of the household’ status and a double inheritance. And let’s not forget his grandfather was Abraham, so we are talking serious cash and prestige.
Not surprisingly, Jacob does a runner. He flees to another land. Time passes. He marries and has children. In fact, twenty years pass.
Then one day God tells Jacob to go back to the land of his father. There is only one small problem in this. It means Jacob has to pass through Esau’s territory. Jacob is still terrified of his brother. He is gripped with fear and works to find a way through. Jacob sends messengers and gifts to Esau telling of his coming as well as gifts to encourage mercy.
This is where it gets really interesting.
The night before Jacob is due to meet Esau, God appears as a man and has a wrestling match with Jacob. This ‘man’ is almost certainly Jesus. (There are a whole string of occurrences in the Old Testament where Jesus appears in human form. Scholars call such an appearance, “Christophanies”).
They wrestle all night. Most peculiarly, God states that he can’t beat him and, like a plot line out of a vampire movie, says He must be going before daybreak.
So a deal is made. Jacob lets him go in exchange for a new name and a blessing.
It is at this point that Jacob makes the extraordinary statement, “I have seen God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared.”
Pause. Rewind just a little and don’t miss it.
Question: When did Jacob realise that he had seen the face of God? What gave it away?
(Hint: It wasn’t either the name change or dawn breaking)
Answer: It was at the point when God blessed Jacob! To be blessed by God is to receive good things from Him. There was something in the blessing that opened Jacob’s eyes to the reality of Whom he had been wrestling with.
I believe it was the beautiful goodness of Jesus’ words that opened Jacob’s eyes to His identity. God’s identity is only ever seen in the context of His nature and his goodness. They cannot be separated.
This was not some wrestle of an angry God with his disobedient creation, but rather it’s the wrestle of a loving Father play-fighting with his son.
Now let’s finish off this story.
The time of the reunion between Esau and Jacob has come. How will it go? Have the wounds festered, are they toxic, or has time brought some healing? Will Esau kill his twin brother?
Jacob looks and sees Esau approaching with a 400 hundred man army! Things have officially gone from bad to worse for Jacob. It’s now or never, and Jacob plucks up some courage and goes out to meet his brother. As Jacob approaches Esau, he institutes some bizarre routine where he bows seven times in the remote chance that it will pacify Esau.
But Esau will have nothing of this.
In a parallel to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son returning to the running embrace of his loving father, the story says: (Gen 33:4)
“But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”
And then the most profound statement is made by Jacob to Esau
“And what a relief to see your friendly smile. It is like seeing the face of God!”
Catch this — if anyone was qualified to say what the ‘face’ of God looks like it was Jacob. He had just finished wrestling with God the night before and had seen him face-to-face. Now he says Esau’s happy smiling face is like seeing the very face of God. He’s connected the two!
This smile is more than a mere smile. It communicates such an incredible depth of emotions. This is not the smile of a casual interaction or like passing someone familiar in the street. Nor is it a fabricated plastic smile of some motivational speaker peddling the latest ‘get rich quick’ scheme.
No! Esau’s smile has a depth to it. The depth of years and emotions and feelings; anger, pain, trauma, sleepless nights, wondering, regret, bitterness, loneliness, hurt, unforgiveness and worst of all, the loss of a brother.
Yet all these are stunningly reconcilled and forgotten in the most beautiful of moments; seeing his older brother’s smiling face. This is the face of true forgiveness and perfect absolution. This is the face of complete acceptance. This is a face that expresses everything that words cannot say.
And like Jacob, we have an older brother who smiles with such depth and intensity and goodness. No wonder we are told to seek His face.
Stop for a second and ponder this question. How do you see Jesus’ face right now? Do you see Him angry, happy, sad, joyful, indifferent, expressionless or something altogether different?
I grew up looking at various depictions of God; evangelism tracts, bibles and ‘comics.’ They showed pictures of God the Father on His throne. High up and distant. His face is blanked out, and His features are indistinguisable. This was a faceless God, spewing forth angry sentiments towards sinners on their way to hell and gracious only towards a few extremely penitent sinners.
A faceless Father.
This portrayal of a faceless Father is a travesty. For with no features, there are no emotions. With no emotions, no love is communicated.
But Jesus reflects the Father. He says, “the Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30) and “Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” If Jesus is smiling, it means our Father is also.
But wait — there’s more. It gets even better!
This story of Jacob and Esau is the first time the ‘face of God’ is mentioned in the Bible. Smarter people than I in the field of biblical interpretation have coined a phrase “The Law of First Mention.” Put simply; this means that the first time a concept or word is referred to in the Bible, this is its most accurate and complete meaning. The ‘first mention’ provides the basis and key in understanding all future references!
Using our friendly scholar’s advice, this means that all future references to the face of God in the Bible need to be understood in light of its first mention; His radiant, smiling face!
This puts a whole new perspective on verses which talk about the Lord’s anger. For example, Isaiah 54:8 says “In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.” The ‘hiding of His face’ in these Old Testament passages indicates that while His nature never changed, the perception and experience of Him did from humanity’s point of view.
I’ll wrap this up now. But let me indulge in one more musing from Psalm 24:6.
The Psalm poses this question:
“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”. (verse 3)
It goes on to explain (v. 4–5) about those who will experience His presence and receive blessings from the Lord; those with clean hands, pure hearts and not trusting in idols.
But most remarkable of all, it closes out the stanza with this comment:
“Such is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek your face, God of Jacob” (Verse 6)
Again, don’t miss it! The verse did not have to reference Jacob. But it does. What’s the implication? The implication is clear that the generation that seeks the smiling face of God, that very face that Jacob saw, will experience His presence and goodness.
No wonder the Bible recommends that we “Look to the Lord and his Strengh — seek His face always” (1 Chorincles 16:11).
It hardly feels like a command when it’s this good!