In Exodus 33:20, God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” However, earlier, in Exodus 33:11, we read, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” So, did Moses see God, and if so, how did he live? Also, how does this agree with John 1:18, which says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son”?
In Exodus 33:18, Moses asks God, “Please show me your glory.” God responds, “‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’ Then the Lord said, ‘There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.’” (Exodus 33:19–23). So, clearly, Moses never truly or fully saw God.
What, then, does Exodus 33:11 mean by saying God and Moses spoke “face to face”? Since God is spirit (John 4:24), He does not truly have a “face.” Exodus 33:11 is simply saying that God and Moses had a close relationship. They were in harmony with each other, just as close friends are. God and Moses were not literally face to face, but their relationship and communication was very much like two people who spoke to one another as close friends would.
While God can appear in human form (or in other physical form) if He wants to, He is, in His essence, not a physical being. Many people in the Bible witnessed theophanies, or appearances of God. No one, though, other than Jesus Christ (John 1:18), has seen God in all of His glory. Even the seraphim in heaven cover their eyes as they worship God (Isaiah 6:1–4).