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Peniel: Seeing the Invisible God
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Peniel: Seeing the Invisible God

Peter Shee—Singapore

              In the stars His handiwork I see,

              On the wind He speaks with majesty,

              Though He ruleth over land and sea,

              What is that to me?


              …Till by faith I met Him face to face

              And I felt the wonder of His grace,

              Then I knew that He was more than just a God who didn’t care,

              That lived away out there

              And now He walks beside me day by day,

              Ever watching o’er me lest I stray,

              Helping me to find the narrow way,

              He’s everything to me.[1]

Great things happen when one meets God face to face. A personal encounter with God left Jacob a different man. Years before, he had vividly dreamed of the God of his fathers, standing distantly above a heavenly ladder. Despite its awesomeness, the vision only drew from him faith that was conditional: “IF God will be with me … and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, THEN the LORD shall be my God” (Gen 28:20–21).

Two decades later at the ford of Jabbok, Jacob held on to God till the break of day, saying, “I will not let you go unless You bless me!” (Gen 32:23–26). This close encounter with God left him physically crippled but spiritually, he was enabled.

With renewed faith, the patriarch, newly re-named Israel, limped his way out of darkness into the rays of the rising sun, marveling that he had “seen God face to face” (Gen 32:30–31). Up until his deathbed he still acknowledged “the God who has fed [him] all [his] life long to this day” (Gen 48:15).

As for the place of his nightlong struggle with the divine, Jacob named it Peniel, literally “face of God” (Gen 32:30).

Deus Absconditus: The Hidden God

At Peniel, the same heavenly Being who declared Himself to be God of Abraham and Isaac obscured His identity and acted contrarily towards His own, physically wrestling Jacob. This goes beyond mere “hiddenness” of God in Christ’s incarnation, suffering and death.

Few in Jesus’ time understood Him to be God incarnated in flesh. He would not have been crucified if the people of His age had known Him to be God (1 Cor 2:6–10). This is what Paul meant when he talked about the “foolishness of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18–25).

Towards Jacob, God as the wrestling angel did not appear to possess any recognizable kindness. He behaved, as Job would put it, like a complete adversary:

              “Why do You hide Your face, and regard me as Your enemy?” (Job 13:24)

              “He tears me in His wrath, and hates me; He gnashes at me with His teeth; my adversary sharpens His gaze on me” (Job 16:9).

Job mistook the reason for his suffering as God’s attack. In Jacob’s case, the attack was actually objectified.

Job’s realization of God’s doings at the end of the trials—“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You” (Job 42:5)—bears much resemblance to Jacob’s response at Peniel. This coincidence is remarkable as we see in both incidences that God does sometimes inflict His people for greater good.

For Jacob, irony presented itself more than once. First, he asked a blessing from an Opponent who had just injured him. Then his name was changed by the One who withheld His own name. And finally, he understood the identity of the Stranger who refused to reveal His name.

Jacob’s recognition of his Opponent whom he wrestled against was an enlightening lesson. Through his sojourning years, he had learned that God who appeared to Abraham continued to be present with the chosen lineage to provide and protect them against adversity (Gen 28:13–15).

Now, he saw God’s face in actual adversity itself and even sought His blessing (Gen 32: 26–29). God had become his personal God.

Believing is seeing

What opened Jacob’s eyes but faith? Since faith is “conviction of unseen realities” (Heb 11:1, NBV), God’s hiddenness is compatible with faith. It is a blessing to see and hear and believe (Mt 13:16–17). But ultimate faith is to believe without seeing (Jn 20:29), for the ultimate object of faith, God, is unapproachable and can never be seen (1 Tim 1:17).

Faith then is as good as sight, and believing is seeing.

“For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Faith transforms our experience with a hidden God, Deus Absconditus (cf. Is 45:15), into a “Peniel” moment, when we see the face of God revealed, Deus Revelatus. Thus we are no longer hindered by the things we cannot fathom, to accept and obey the things revealed to us (Deut 29:29).

When faith and revelation are fully played out in a person’s experience with the divine, he arrives at his own “Peniel”. As the words of Christ generated faith in the Samaritan woman, she progressed through her prejudice, doubt and ignorance to finally recognize her Savior (Jn 4:9, 11, 15). The men of her city upgraded their faith from second-hand to first-hand after meeting the Lord face-to-face (Jn 4:42).

Then there are examples of faith transcending physical sighting. In contrast to Philip’s request to see the Father (Jn 14:8, 9), Peter’s recognition of Jesus as “Christ, son of the living God” stemmed from the Father’s revelation (Mt 16: 16, 17). The hearts of two disciples on the road to Emmaus were ignited when they heard the Scriptures expounded by the risen Christ (Lk 24:16, 32). They realized who Christ was at the moment when Jesus disappeared from their presence (Lk 24:31).

Adding on, there is the dying thief who stopped his mocking the moment his faith gave him a glimpse of the kingly profile of the man crucified next to him (Lk 23:40–42; cf. Mt 27:44). Mary Magdalene had her eureka moment by the empty tomb in the darkness, when the true identity of the gardener dawned on her (Jn 20:14–16).

And, most famously, there’s Paul the apostle, one of the best expositors of the Hebrew Scriptures. Formerly Saul the persecutor, his spiritual enlightenment came the moment he became blind physically (Acts 9:3–9).

Seeing Him as He is

              “As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness, I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness” (Ps 17:15).

              “For it is God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who 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).

Moses, who gave us the Law, saw only the form of God, but was not permitted to see His face. God hid him in the cleft of a rock, and he was shown only the back of God, posteriori Dei (Ex 33:20–23).

Christians today enter the Holy of Holies through the blood of Christ (Heb 10:19); thus we can approach the throne of grace without fear (Heb 4:16) to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD as expressed in one of the Davidic psalms (Ps 27:4).

Moses veiled his face to hide the glory of God from the people when he came down from Sinai (Ex 34:29–33). But we New Testament saints can behold with unveiled face as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and be transformed into the same image from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:13, 18). The Holy Spirit not only enlightens our minds to understand the Scriptures, but transforms our lives to conform to its standards.

For this reason, when Christ comes again, we who are in constant communion with God through prayer and obedience to His word shall be like Him, and we shall see Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2).

[1] From the hymn “He’s Everything to Me” by Ralph Carmichael (1964)

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