Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The original words for face, both in the Hebrew and in the Greek, show the same derivation: first, to turn towards, to face; then, the part that turns, the face or appearance; then, one’s presence; and, finally, one’s person itself. The word countenance is closely related to the idea of face, presence, and person.
The face reveals what is in the heart of a man (and of God); it shows the attitude of someone, the stance he has toward another. The face can show humility. Abram fell on his face before God when God spoke covenant promises to him (Gen. 17:3), and Joshua fell on his face before the Captain of the Lord’s hosts (Josh. 5:14). But Jesus warns us that there is a false disfiguring of the face, a wearing of a sad countenance, that God sees and detests (Matt. 6:16). The face can show resolution. When it was time for Jesus to be received up, “He stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:15). God reveals His anger and displeasure by hiding His face (Ps. 13:1), and by setting His face against a man (Ps. 34:16). Man’s face can show opposition to God’s word, for the prophet Jeremiah was told by God repeatedly not to be “afraid of their faces, for I am with thee” (Jer. 1:8).
Covenant intimacy is described in the expression “face to face.” “The Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Ex. 33:11). All the elect are destined to see God face to face, i.e., fully and perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ, for “now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.” Although no man can ever see God Himself, all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ bodily. The Word made flesh reveals the fullness of God’s glory. When we see face to face, and know as we are known, the glory of God shall be revealed to us, in us, and through us, so that our faces will shine with heavenly light as did the face of Moses (Ex. 34:30), and of Stephen (Acts 6:15), and of Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 17:2). It was because of the joy set before Jesus on the mount of transfiguration that Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Because we are joint heirs of Christ by faith, we “reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
God calls us to seek His face (Ps. 27:8). We understand the face of God to stand for God Himself, as the God of all beauty, the God whose tabernacle is with men, the God whom we desire above everything earthly, the God whose countenance is lifted up upon His people. Because the experience of faith is so rich and so meaningful already now in the land of the living, we wait on the Lord, are of good courage, and say, “Thy face Lord, will I seek.” When that seeking people appear before God in his house each Sabbath, the preacher assures them that the countenance of Jehovah is lifted up upon them.
When someone’s countenance is fallen, or drawn downward, as Cain’s was in regard to God and Abel when God did not have respect to his sacrifice (Gen. 4:5), and as Laban’s was in regard to Jacob, whom God made rich with cattle (Gen. 31:50), we are to think of all the lines of the face drawn downward in a frown and with severity. But when the countenance is lifted up, and we speak now of God’s countenance, we may think of the lines of His face drawn upward, in a shining smile, with holy delight, showing paternal pleasure, revealing thoughts of blessing and determination to save!
That was the blessing God commanded Aaron to bestow upon true Israel. “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num 6:24-26).