Most Bible lovers agree that the Old Testament Scriptures promise Christ, pattern Christ (in types and shadows) and present the problems that Christ solves (e.g. how can God justly justify the ungodly). Where there is less agreement is over the question of whether, to what extent and how is Christ present in the Old Testament. When the LORD ‘appears’ to people (e.g. Gen. 12:7) is that the second person of the Trinity – a Christophany – or is it a more indeterminate ‘theophany’? When the Angel of the LORD talks to people and it seems like the LORD God is speaking (e.g. Judges 2:1-3), is that the pre-incarnate Christ addressing them or is it an angelic being who is being used as God’s mouthpiece – like the LORD speaking through a long piece of piping coming out the mouth of the angel?
There are differences on this and people I hugely respect (e.g. Gerald Bray) who would decide against seeing much of the Son of God physically/visibly/audibly present in the Old Testament. I don’t think this is something we should fight about or divide over or make into a primary issue. But here are a few observations (in addition to those mentioned in the book Let the Bible Speak) which push me towards seeing the Son of God turning up in the Old Testament.
- In the beautiful blessings on Israel in Deuteronomy 33 (what a fantastic chapter! the Ephesians 1 of the OT) Moses speaks of the “favour of him who dwelt in the burning bush” (v16). In the context he must mean the LORD God himself – the one from whom all blessings flow – and Moses says he ‘dwelt’ in the bush. Not ‘spoke through the angel in the bush.’ The LORD had actually ‘come down’ (Ex. 3:8) and tabernacled in the burning bush. He was there.
- The Angel of the LORD seems usually to appear as the ‘ground level’ LORD-come-down in distinction to the Most High LORD. But there are a couple of times when the Angel of the LORD calls ‘from heaven’ (Gen. 22:11, 15). This is very interesting. If the Angel of the LORD is simply a passive mouthpiece which the LORD of heaven sometimes uses to speak to men at ground level then why speak of the Angel of the LORD calling from heaven? Why not simply “The LORD called from heaven” (as elsewhere e.g. Ex. 20:22). The Angel of the LORD is plainly the LORD (Gen. 22:15-16). So it seems that there may be more than one person called the LORD in heaven.
- Something I’ve been particularly struck by recently is how the Angel of the LORD in the Old Testament is worshipped through sacrifice by those he encounters. First, Genesis 12:7 – the LORD appears to Abram and Abram builds an altar to this LORD who had appeared to him. In Genesis 22 Abraham prepares a burnt offering to the LORD (of his son) and the Angel of the LORD says, “You have not withheld your son from me” (v16) – as Glen Scrivener notes the burnt offering was clearly going to be to the Angel of the LORD. Even clearer, look at Judges 6. Here the Angel of the LORD is extremely clearly identified with the LORD himself. But even more than this notice that Gideon prepares an offering of a goat and unleavened bread (v19). He is making this offering before and to the Angel of the LORD (v18, 19). This is the test of whether “it is really you [i.e. the LORD] talking to me” (v17). One of the clearest things you get from reading through the Old Testament is that you should only offer sacrifices to the LORD God. Any other object of sacrifice is foulest idolatry. So this is the big test – is this the LORD who is receiving a sacrifice from Gideon or is Gideon offering a sacrifice to an angel (or a demon). The answer – fire from the Angel of the LORD consumes the sacrifice (cf. Lev. 9:24), Gideon realises indeed he has seen the Angel of the LORD face to face (which seems to be as dangerous as seeing the LORD face to face) and the LORD reassures him, “Peace!” (v21-23). One more example – Judges 13. Manoah is a bit slower on the uptake than Gideon. He suggests getting the ‘man of God’ a meal (v15). The Angel of the LORD reminds him that burnt offerings are offered to the LORD alone (v16). Manoah duly sacrifices a goat and grain offering (like Gideon) to the LORD (v19) and the Angel of the LORD ascends in the flame of sacrifice ‘up to heaven’ – back home – back to where the sweet aroma of sacrifice is supposed to go. And finally Manoah gets it – “We have seen God!” (v22) It was the LORD who has both ‘told us all this’ and ‘has accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands’ (v23).
- Finally, there is very strong support from church history for this reading of the presence of Christ in the Old Testament. Justin Martyr (c.100-165) saw it (e.g. Dialogue with Trypho 61). Irenaeus (c.130-202) saw it (e.g. Against Heresies 3.6.1). In the fourth century there was even a council which pronounced anathema against those who denied that Abraham met the Son of God or that Jacob wrestled with the second person of the Trinity. Augustine was the first to suggest that the OT appearances were theophanies rather than Christophanies – probably influenced by a) a desire to preserve the uniqueness of the incarnation; b) a concern that the Son could appear to be a created being (Arianism); and c) an intrusion of Greek thinking that was more concerned to preserve an abstract ‘divine essence’ than to explore the biblical testimony to the Trinity (ref). Luther, heavily influenced by Augustine, was sometimes reluctant to see the Angel of the LORD as the Son of God (e.g. at Gen. 16 or 22) but he did agree that Jacob wrestled with Christ (refs). With Calvin and the Reformed tradition there is a united testimony that the Son of God was the one in the burning bush – e.g. John Calvin, John Owen and Jonathan Owen. Richard Sibbes says, “From the beginning of the world, the church hath had the presence of Christ always… he assumed a body and afterward laid it down again, until he came, indeed, to take our nature upon him, never to leave it again” (First Sermon on the Song of Songs). Baptists agreed – e.g. John Gill (1697-1771) notes on Genesis 12:7 “whenever there was any visible appearance of a divine Person, under the former dispensation, it seems to be always of the essential Word, that was to be incarnate” and similarly on Exodus 3:2 “the Angel of God's presence and covenant, the eternal Word and Son of God; since he is afterwards expressly called Jehovah, and calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which a created angel would never do.” It’s really only with Schleiermacher (1768-1834) that we get a serious challenge to the understanding that Christ was present in the Old Testament. The father of liberalism introduced an evolutionary view of religion and of the Bible – the Bible is a product of human religion and the OT religion was a much more primitive form of religion than the NT. Clearly under this view it was anachronistic and even meaningless to speak of the Trinity or Christ in the Old Testament. How much this evolutionary, product-of-man view of the Bible has seeped into the evangelical mind is a matter of debate but one wonders…
Why might all this matter?
Well there are a number of implications but here is one. When we are debating with muslim friends it will often be argued that Abraham was a good muslim; he didn’t believe all this stuff about the Trinity and God having a son, he just very simply and straightforwardly submitted himself to God. And at this point many Christians start to look a bit lost, because much of our preaching does simply talk about ‘God.’ We might have a sermon series looking at the ‘faith of Abraham’ and ‘how Abraham trusted God’ and we perhaps never even mention Jesus.
But what if Abraham met the Son of God? Repeatedly! What if he rejoiced to see Jesus (John 8:56)? What if he knew there is a difference between the unseen Most High LORD and the Angel/Messenger of the LORD who appears to him? What if he trusts and worships and submits himself specifically to the Son of God? Well then that changes everything. Abraham is not a Unitarian, he is a model of Christian faith (Rom. 4:16).