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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Appearances of Christ Before The Incarnation

Published Friday, December 21, 2018 By Michael S. Horton

A cursory reading of Scripture might leave a new reader wondering what exactly the Old and New Testaments have to do with each other—the Old Testament talks a lot about Yahweh; the New Testament seems primarily concerned with Jesus.   Where do the two (not forgetting the third!) persons of the Godhead meet?  Was there some kind of rotating duty among the persons of the Trinity during redemptive history?  Christmas is the time in which we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). But this same Word, who was God and was also with God (John 1:1-2), actually shows up a number of times throughout Israel’s history.  A few years ago, Editor-in-Chief Michael Horton sat down with Justin Holcomb, Episcopal priest and professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary; Adriel Sanchez, PCA pastor and Core Christianity radio co-host; and Whitney Gamble, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Providence Christian College, to discuss these manifestations of God in human or angelic form (called ‘theophanies’) in various Old Testament passages.

Michael Horton: We’re told in the Bible that God can’t swear by anybody higher than himself. When the angel of the Lord says to Abraham, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord,” we see this ‘person’ who is distinct from the Father and yet still called God.  John has a similar description in his prologue: the Word was with God and the Word was God.  This isn’t a second-tier God; this is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is also the Angel of the Lord.  So, who is that strange figure, the angel of the Lord who appeared to the patriarchs, to Moses, and the burning bush, and in the courtroom of Zachariah’s night vision?  Who is that mysterious commander of the Lord’s army, who shows up confronting Joshua on the battlefield, sword drawn?  We normally associate the presence of God, the eternal Son with and among us, with the incarnation, and certainly, the word did become flesh and tabernacled among us.  But he didn’t come out of nowhere—at various places in times in biblical history, we have theophanies or christophanies where the Son manifested himself in human or angelic form prior to his incarnation. Exploring these appearances helps us to see a little better how Christ is the central character of the Bible’s unfolding drama even before he was born.

Paul says in Colossians 1:17 that “in him all things hold together,” and John writes that “the word was with God and the word was God.”  Everything was created through him and for him. We see Christ is present before the creation, as the one through whom the Father made all of creation, so it’s less surprising that he shows up later throughout the Old Testament.

Whitney Gamble:   It’s important to remember that the Trinity is not sort of ushered into existence by the incarnation.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all doing things throughout redemptive history.  It’s certainly less obvious than the incarnation, but they’re still there, pointing to the time when Christ would come in flesh.

Michael Horton:   It’s interesting to see how present-day rabbis read those appearances—it usually goes something like, “I don’t know what they are—they’re like God; they’re like, really close to God.  But no, they’re not God.  But they’re an awful lot like God…”  As Christians, we go to the New Testament and say, “Well, here the apostles said that Christ was the mediator in creation, the rock in the wilderness and so forth.”  They tell us go back and read the Old Testament with different glasses.  Are we right in identifying Christ in some of these Old Testament appearances, particularly as the angel of the Lord?

Justin Holcomb:   It’s helpful to keep in mind that an angel can be a messenger or a ‘sent one’. You’ll notice that there are several instances when, at the appearance of an angel, the human receiving him will bow down, and the angel will say, “Don’t do that.”  It’s a little hint that, in certain circumstances, these are heralds of God’s word, not God himself.  When I was in seminary, our Old Testament professor would encourage us to read through the Old Testament and identify the various types of Christ and Christophanies, but would always warn us against what he called, “a leprechaun Christology.”  It’s not the case that every appearing of an angel is automatically a picture of Christ.

Adriel Sanchez:   Allowing the New Testament to help us read the Old Testament is such an important principle for Christians—the only infallible interpreter of Scripture is the Scripture itself.   It’s a blessing that we can look at these passages that maybe are or were baffling for rabbis throughout the centuries, where the Lord himself appears to person in this sort of physical manifestation and say with confidence that we know what’s being spoken of there because the apostles have told us.

Justin Holcomb:   Jacob Neusner, the Jewish theologian, said that there’s a reason that Christians believe in the Trinity. It’s not because it sprouted up during the apostolic age or at the Council of Nicaea—there are texts in the Hebrew scriptures that lead into this interpretation.

Michael Horton:   Let’s look at Genesis 18:1.

And the Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked and behold, three men were standing in front of him.  And when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the Earth and said, ‘Oh, Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought and wash your feet and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring food that you may refresh yourselves. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he prepared and set it before them and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

What do we see here?

Whitney Gamble:  It says clearly that the Lord appeared to Abraham—somehow, he appeared in the form of a man with real feet (that needed washing, no less) who ate food. But then, there are these other two figures with him—

Michael Horton:   —who are distinguished from the angel who is the Lord.  So, it’s like three angels but one of them is actually God; is that fair?

Justin Holcomb:   Exactly.  It says that Yahweh appeared to Abraham—this isn’t a vision; the Lord didn’t put him into a sleep.  This was a waking experience that he verbally engaged with at a specific location.

Adriel Sanchez:  And he receives the promise that very soon, he’s going to have a son, which is miraculous in itself, because up to this point, his wife has been barren. It’s the first instance of an emerging theme in the Old Testament of barren women who will somehow conceive and bear children who will play crucial roles in redemptive history. There’s Sarah, Abraham’s wife, then Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, who gives birth to Jacob.  Samson’s mother was told in Judges 13:2 that she was a barren woman; Elizabeth in the New Testament—all these barren women (women who technically could not conceive) are setting the stage for the virgin birth.

Michael Horton:   Reinforcing the motif of the sovereign agency and grace of God—“You aren’t going to do this; I’m going to do this.”

Adriel Sanchez:   That’s right. The most barren women of all, a virgin, gives birth to the most longed-for child of all, Christ the Lord, for the people of God, and Abraham has the privilege of seeing a pre-cursor of it here, in Genesis.

Michael Horton:   So here is the Eternal Son coming to his great-great-great-great-great grandfather to announce to Abraham that he will have a son from whose loins, he, Yahweh himself, will come.  That’s kind of mind boggling.  God gives him this promise—and will repeat the same promise to Jacob in Genesis 50—and the fulfillment of the promise itself shows up in a pre-incarnate state with angels!

Justin Holcomb:   He’s giving reassurance of a promise that he’s going to be the fulfillment of years later—it’s wonderful.  The promise given in Genesis 15 would have been enough, but here is again, reassuring Abraham that he will keep his word.  There’s a wonderful extravagance of kindness in showing up later to say again, “I gave the promise, and the promise is good.”

Michael Horton:   Because even after we read that Abraham believed God and was justified. He immediately thereafter says, “But how will I know?” Genesis 22, beginning at verse one,

God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from Heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from Heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son. I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of Heaven.

We’re told in the Bible, God can’t swear by anybody higher than himself.  Instead of saying, “I swear by God,” God says, “I swear by me,” so the angel of the Lord says to Abraham, “By myself I have sworn declares the Lord.” It can’t get clearer than that. No wonder the rabbis were having trouble with this, trying to figure out how to not turn these angels into Yahweh, even though it looks like they are!

Justin Holcomb:  Especially when you see other instances of angels speaking and saying, “Stop bowing; I’m just giving you the news of the most high God.” This messenger of God distinguishes himself by accepting worship.  It’s interesting to note that Jesus calls himself ‘the sent one’ by the Father. It’s used forty times in the Gospel of John.  He’s a messenger, but at the same time, he’s God, and Genesis 22 is a great picture of it.

Adriel Sanchez:   How fascinating that these contacts with the angel of the Lord are always so closely associated with the substance of the gospel message.  First, there’s the promise of a barren woman will bear a child; here, a picture of Abraham offering up his only son—there’s sacrifice and atonement for sin.

Whitney Gamble:  We even see the Lord providing a ram for the sacrifice.  I mean, can you get any more clearer than that, where a substitute is offered in the place of Abraham’s son?

Justin Holcomb:   The same God that provided the sacrifice is the same one who will himself be the ultimate sacrifice.

Michael Horton:   In Genesis 28, beginning at verse 12, Jacob is running from his bother Esau, for good reason—he’s just swindled him out of his inheritance (not that Esau didn’t have his issues).  After a while, he stops running, makes camp and falls asleep. You can imagine that as he’s running through this area, Mesopotamia, he would have seen these ziggurats—they’re kind of like Aztec or Mayan or Egyptian pyramids—where, at the very top, sacrifices would have been offered to the Gods.  Very often, these pagan temples would have the inscription ‘stairway to Heaven’ or ‘gate of Heaven’ or something signifying that this is the place where Heaven and Earth meet.  As he’s asleep, he has a kind of vision of one of these stairways to heaven.  Genesis 28 beginning at verse 12:

….Jacob dreamed and behold, there was a ladder set upon the Earth and the top of it reached to Heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your Father, and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie, I will give to you and your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the Earth.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of Heaven.

It’s amazing that the angels are ascending and descending this ladder and the Lord is standing at the top of the ladder saying, “You know that promise that I unilaterally gave to your Father Abraham?  That’s still happening.  Yeah, you’re on the run, but you’re not going to be killed; you’re going to have offspring and from your loins will come the savior.”

Adriel Sanchez:  This is one of those places where the New Testament really helps us to understand what’s happening here.  In John 1:51 he says, “Truly I say to you, you will see Heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man, on Jesus.”

Michael Horton:   He was the ladder that Jacob saw.

Whitney Gamble:   The Genesis text doesn’t explicitly say that the ladder is the coming messiah—it actually says that the Lord stood above the ladder—but Jesus himself gives the authoritative interpretation when he identifies himself as the ladder.  In a sense, both are present, the Lord standing above the ladder and Jesus himself being the ladder, which again points to the Trinity revealing himself in the Old Testament.

Michael Horton:   It’s the same point that John makes in his prologue. “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” That sentence really is the Trinity.  God goes by different names—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—but we’re still talking about one person.  We’re not saying that there is more than one God; we’re saying that there is more than one person who is the one God.  The sentence makes it clear that that’s you’re only choice.   These theophanies help in that they demonstrate different the different persons of the godhead who are distinct yet one.  What’s another passage you can think of?

Whitney Gamble:   One really amazing, incredible theophany is in Exodus 3—the famous burning bush. Verse 2 says:

The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. And God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near. Take your sandals off your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ And he said, ‘I’m the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God.

The Lord then gives Moses a commission to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt.  It’s a pretty clear example: in verse 2, it’s identified as the angel of the Lord, and then further identified in verse 6 as, “I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  There are only two categories in the Bible—creator and creation. Angels are creatures, but this angel is explicitly linked with the classic statement of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Michael Horton:   If we jump ahead to Joshua—during that scene where Joshua is fighting the Canaanites, the Hittites, and Amorites and he’s wiping the land clean—we something very similar: the Lord gives Israel’s enemies into their hand, when somebody appears out of nowhere and says, “Whose side are you on?” which is a really tactful thing to say when you’ve got a drawn sword in your hand.  The angel says, “Neither. For I am the commander of the Lord’s army. And now I have come.” Joshua falls on his face and worships him, and what does the angel tell him to do? To take off the sandals from his feet for he’s standing on holy ground; the same command he gave to Moses out of the burning bush.  It’s a kind of code to link that event with this one.

Justin Holcomb:   We also see a reference to the angel of the Lord in Isaiah 63:9, when it talks about Israel’s savior and “the angel of his presence,” saving them:  “In all their affliction, he was afflicted. And the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and in his pity, he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them all the days old.”  It brings the concepts of justice and mercy together in an amazing way.

Michael Horton:  So when we see the angel of his presence or the angel of the Lord, it’s not an angel, but the angel of the Lord.  When we talk about the angel of his presence, we’re talking about the second person of the Trinity.

Justin Holcomb:  We also have in Exodus 3 the name of God.  He says:

“Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?  God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’  And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you.”

There are numerous places in the New Testament where Jesus claimed to be before Abraham, before Moses, and then explicitly takes this name for himself when he says in John 8, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”  This is deliberate—some have downplayed that and said, “Well, of course, if he is going to try to show himself as something, he’ll have to use an analogy; he’s going to have to say those words ‘I am’.  But the divine imagery he uses—the gate in John 10:9, the shepherd in John 10:11—is the same imagery Yahweh uses.  It wasn’t a casual illustration to showcase his care and concern for people; it was a deliberate appropriation of the same ‘I AM’ statements used by Yahweh for the sake of establishing his bona fides.  As a good, observant Jew, he wouldn’t have used that sort of language carelessly.

Adriel Sanchez:   When the Pharisees asked him in John 8, “Who do you make yourself out to be?” they pick up stones in order to stone him when they hear his answer.   He knows what he’s saying when he uses this language, and they understand the significance of what he’s saying; not just in John 8, but throughout John’s gospel.  He is identifying himself with these revelations of God.  It makes conversations with non-believers pretty crazy—they’ll say things like, “We like Jesus; we agree with his teachings—he was a great moral leader, like Mohammed or Ghandi.”  But when you understand what Jesus was saying, you realized that a great moral teacher wouldn’t say the kinds of things Jesus said about himself unless they were true.  The Pharisees weren’t upset with him because he was a good moral leader; they were upset because he was making himself out to be God.

Whitney Gamble:  He explicitly identifies himself with the classic Old Testament Yahweh—”I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and Jesus says, “That was me.”

Michael Horton:  There is no other category—it’s not like he’s saying, “There’s God the Father, and then a little lower is this thing in the Old Testament that was the angel of the Lord, which is kind of where I fit because in the Old Testament itself, the angel of the Lord is identified as God.”  No, there’s only one category—Yahweh—and it just so happens that the angel of the Lord, whenever he appears, is identified as Yahweh. Well, that’s Jesus.

Justin Holcomb: In John 6:38 he says, “For I have come down from Heaven, not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me.” This helps us makes sense reading back into these passages of the angel of the Lord and Yahweh.  When Jesus comes into the world, he doesn’t say, “I AM sent me,” he says over and over, “I AM; I am that I AM who sent Moses.” This is why he can also give an authoritative interpretation of the law in Matthew 5:21-48, “You’ve heard it said, (fill in the blank), but I say (insert here).”  He basically says, “I said this then, and I’m saying this now—both are my law.”  He’s Moses on the mountain giving his law, and the suffering servant preaching his sermon on the mount.  In each of these scenes, Jesus is clearly saying, “I am Yahweh.”

Whitney Gamble:  It’s so interesting that in all of these Theophanies, we see this recurring theme of God’s wrath and judgment coming and somehow being averted through the work of the angel of the Lord in different ways.  Take Abraham and Isaac—Abraham’s about to kill his son and his hand is stayed

Adriel Sanchez:   —and in 1 Chronicles 21, when the angel of the Lord has devastated Israel with a plague!  The Lord commands his angel to stay his hand, and David looks up to see the angel’s sword hovering over Jerusalem, and he pleads with God to exact justice on himself and his father’s house, instead of on the people.

Whitney Gamble:   Exactly.  The point of all of it is to hint at the ultimate work of the angel of the Lord, which is to take God’s wrath upon himself by being the sacrifice of propitiation and atonement.

Michael Horton:   Every time he shows up in one these scenes, he’s reminding us that he is the central character; that the whole plot is moving toward that great day when he will finally come in the flesh, and that every day up until that point brings his people closer to the moment when this great final promise is fulfilled.

Adriel Sanchez:   I just think it’s so wonderful that we can look at these wonderful scenes where these different things are happening and you don’t need to wait to get to the gospels before you come to Jesus.  We can see him in Genesis 22, and really, in all the book of Genesis—if we don’t see him there, then passages like Genesis 22 are going to sort of devolve into fables about how we really need to sacrifice for God even when it costs us.  1 Chronicles 21 becomes about how we really need to repent, because it’s repentance that causes God to stay his wrath—in both cases, the story becomes about us and not about Christ.  We have to see what it is they’re  actually communicating to us, which is the presence of the angel of the Lord Jesus there, giving us a hint of what’s coming as that narrative continues to unfold.  That ultimately is our greatest hope. It’s such an encouragement for people as they’re beginning the journey through the Old Testament—there’s the gospel, even from the very beginning.

Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine and co-host of the Core Christianity radio program.

Whitney Gamble is the associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Providence Christian College.

Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Adriel Sanchez is the pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church (PCA) in San Diego and co-host of the Core Christianity program.

  • Michael S. Horton

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