Question: “Men and women who saw God in the Bible: Why did they not all die?” “But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’” (Exodus 33:20)
First, consider those who did see God—how did they respond when they saw Him? They were instantly aware of their sinfulness, and God’s holiness and righteousness (to name a few. And notice also that each responded in an attitude of worship, bowing down): Abraham built altars, worshipping on his face; Isaac and Jacob set up heaps of stones as memorials when they saw the LORD in visions; Moses was told to remove his sandals for he was on Holy ground; only one priest could enter the Holy of Holies once per year provided sin was covered; Joshua fell on his face before the captain of the hosts of the LORD; Gideon not only saw, but presented an offering to the LORD and received the promise that though he saw the LORD, he would not die having seen Him; Manoah and wife fell to the ground; Isaiah pronounced judgment against himself when He saw the LORD; Joseph obeyed immediately after his vision; Mary demonstrated submission and obedience; John the Baptist recognized he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals; Paul fell on his face; John did likewise.
When each saw the Lord, they were aware of His holiness and their own sin and mortality; but, each also experienced a level of grace; that is, God granted them continued physical life because they honored and glorified Him for who He is (unlike Nabad and Abihu), recognizing there was nothing good in themselves, and everything good in Him. Each time God extended mercy because they submitted to His righteousness. They furthermore trusted Him by faith to make them spiritually alive as well.
Second, consider the context of the verse specifically. Moses is on Sinai receiving the Law (moral, civil and ceremonial). While God would not allow anyone to see His face, He still made Himself available to be seen. Additionally, God provided what was necessary (a covering) in order for what was seen of Him to be enjoyed. The Law reveals His glory while simultaneously revealing man’s sinfulness. Seeing God without dealing with sin leads to disaster.
(re-post from June 19, 2008)