Jean’s Gospel: The Backside of God
“‘Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.’ And [the Lord] said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’” (Ex 33:13-14)
Shortly after the golden calf incident at Sinai, God and Moses had a conversation, which illustrates man’s relationship with God after the fall. Moses asked: “please show me your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.” Moses wanted an intimate relationship with God, so that he might find favor with God by leading the people according to God’s will.
To obtain that relationship and understand His will, Moses asked God: “show me now your ways.” Moses was uncertain: What are God’s intentions? How might God deal with future transgressions by the Israelites? The Lord responded: “my presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
God’s response was not a full “nuts-and-bolts” revelation of His ways, but He gave Moses two excellent promises: (1) His continued presence during the journey; and (2) His eventual rest. Does this sound familiar? These are a type of the promises which find their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. For Christians, the Holy Spirit is God’s continuing presence: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). And salvation is the rest Christ freely bestows on those who believe in him: “For we who have believed enter that rest” (Heb 4:3).
“Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory.’” (Ex 33:18)
Moses, however, was not entirely satisfied with God’s response. Moses asked more specifically: “show me you glory.” Moses wanted to see God’s naked majesty, holiness and perfection. Moses wanted to know the God behind his external Word.
This is also where many Christians get into trouble. They want (or claim) to know God’s ways behind His external Word. These enthusiasts seek God by one of two paths: (i) some attempt to perceive God’s ways by applying human reason to what is happening around them; (ii) others attempt to perceive God’s ways through an inner voice. In either case the enthusiast seeks God outside of his external Word.
“And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The Lord.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’” (Ex 33:19-20)
God will not (and cannot) reveal himself to Moses naked. Prior to eternity, God must hide himself from sinners behind masks.
Behind the external Word, God is not our Father. Only the Son can reveal the Father: “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matt 11:27) No one knows the Son except by faith wrought by the Holy Spirit which comes by hearing the external Word: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) Therefore, behind the external Word there is only damnation. God unmasked is not for us; we cannot but fear him.
Moreover, as sinful beings we do not have the ability to comprehend the mind of God. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33b) If we attempt to find God behind the external Word, we pervert and distort God’s character. We expect God to run heaven the way we run things on earth, so we create a god in our own image. That was the sin of Job’s friends and of Jesus’ disciples: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)
Therefore, God cannot show his “face” to Moses. However, God again gives Moses the external Word, which reaffirms the covenant between God and the people: “I will…proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’” Then God shows himself to Moses masked.
“And the Lord said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.’” (Ex 33:21-23)
God revealed His backside to Moses. No one would recognize this mask as God without faith. Moses recognized God by faith in God’s external Word: “you shall see my back”. That God would mask himself as a backside is an allusion to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
“Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-9)
God’s ultimate hiding place is in Christ. But not merely behind human flesh; in Christ God is hidden behind humiliation, suffering and death on the cross. Not unlike Moses, Philip asked: “‘Lord, show us the Father….’ Jesus said to him…. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’” (John 14:8-9b)
We are not given direct access to God. Instead, Jesus reveals God for us masked behind humiliation, suffering and death (i.e., his backside). Paul calls the message of the cross foolishness (see 1 Cor 1:25) because it is the antithesis of human wisdom: The cross is the glory of God; power in weakness; Christ’s death reconciles the world to God; death conquers death. But by means of the cross, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20c)
Human reason cannot accept or believe the message of the cross. The foolishness of the Gospel must be revealed by faith. God alone must accomplish his work in us.
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Cor 1:21)
God shows us His ways, but on His terms. If we want to know and understand God and His works, we must look at His backside – that is, at Christ suffering and dying for us on the cross. We must look with ears of faith in the external Word which finds us and proclaims: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) This side of eternity, the foolishness of the cross is the epistemological key for understanding God’s ways. God hides His face from us, so that we seek Him where he is “all in” for us – on the cross.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7) Amen.