The Christian hope is that we will see God. We call this hope the beatific vision. This is what St. John is talking about in the epistle (1 John 3:1f.) when he says, “We know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him: for we shall see him as he is.”
Moses saw God when he ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the commandments. His face was so illuminated by the encounter that the people were afraid to look at him (Exodus 34:29-30). Job saw God, and was humbled by the vision. He said, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye sees thee. Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6, RSV).
Neither Moses nor Job saw all there is to see of God. God had said to Moses, “You cannot see my face: for no man can see me, and live.” (Ex 33:20). Both were given the privilege of seeing the measure of God’s glory they could endure without being consumed.
Man cannot see the fullness of God’s glory because of sin. It is not merely that God won’t let us look at him. It is, rather, that we are literally unable to endure his glory and presence because of our condition–just like we can’t look at the sun without losing our sight or walk through fire without being burned.
The Old Testament system of sacrifice and purification was instituted precisely so that God’s redeemed people might be able to enter back into his presence and see him. In each stage of the drama of redemption, God brings man closer to himself, or God comes closer to man. Man’s vision of God becomes clearer.
The definitive step in the vision of God is the Incarnation. In the Old Testament, God had no form. Those who saw him saw what they described as a combination of grand luminosity and rare jewelry. In the New Testament, the Son of God, who is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), enables us to see God in a new way. As St. John says, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
A further progression in our vison of God is made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul contrasts the way Moses saw God with the way we see God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The shining face of Moses faded over time. His vision of God resulted in a temporary glory that did not save him from death. Our vison of God in Christ through the Spirit results in an ever-increasing, eternal glory. As 2 Corinthians says, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory” (3:18).
We see God more clearly in Christ because our spiritual blindness has been healed. St. Paul says that the god of this world has “blinded the minds of those who do not believe” (2 Corinthians 4:4). The first miracle performed by the risen Christ was to give the gift of sight. He explained the Scriptures to the two men on the road to Emmaus, then he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. And “their eyes were opened and they knew him”(Luke 24:13-31, see also 24:45).
By grace, our minds are opened to understand the Scriptures and we know Christ in the breaking of the bread. We gather around the altar to see God. Not every problem is solved. Not every disease is healed–yet. But, as with Job, it is enough to see God and experience his presence. God gives us wisdom and strength for the present and hope for the future. “Now we are the children of God…And we know that when he appears we shall be like him.”
By grace, we see God in other people. We understand that people are not objects to be used or annoyances to be tolerated. They are made in the image of God and worthy of our time and love. By grace we see Christ in the members of his body. Christ ministers to us through the gifts of others, and we are called to serve Christ in others, especially in the least of his brethren (Matthew 25:40).
We see God through his redemptive presence in our lives. We experience the new creation as God brings his order out of our chaos, as the light of Christ shines in our darkness. By faith, we see the hand of God, even in bad things. We come to understand that, contrary to the visible evidence, God is in control. We learn that we can trust him to work in all things for good and finish his work in us.
We see God now by faith, but there is more to come. “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” The word for appear in this passage means to reveal. It is connected to our word, “Epiphany.” What we call the “Second Coming” of Jesus is, really, a fuller revelation of Jesus. Jesus isn’t very far away. We just don’t see him fully yet. There are angels and demons in the world, but we don’t see them yet either. There is day of final revelation coming when our current vision will be expanded so that we can really see.
We wait and hope for the day when faith will give way to sight. We wait and hope for the day when God will fully reveal himself in all his glory. The revelation of God through Jesus will be judgment for the world and salvation for God’s people. Sin, death and all manor of evil will vanish from his presence in the very moment of his glorious appearance (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8). Those who belong to him, those who now see and know in part, will see and know fully. Now we experience redemption as a gradual process. Then we will experience redemption “in a moment, in the twinkling of any eye”(1 Corinthians 15:52).
St. John says that this hope purifies us. The desire to see God and be perfected by him is the beginning of holiness. And it puts life in perspective. In all of our trials and tribulations, and in the hour of death, we can say, with Job, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth….And…in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).