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Christophanies in the Old Testament

In many topics, I’ve mentioned my belief that the Old Testament physical appearances of God, Theophanies, were actually appearances of Christ, Christophanies. I thought after a couple of years of doing so, it was probably time to explain why I believe that to be the case and why I believe it is important. Bear with me as I list a lot of references. I'm not trying to use them as "proof texts" to prove my point, but only links that indicate sources for the stories and interpretations of them. I don't see this topic as anything that I can prove one way or the other, but instead want to share where I lean in my beliefs and why. I'm fully open to being wrong about any of this. :)

Before I get into the topic though, let me touch on something. Recently, of Facebook, someone told me that I wasn’t qualified to offer an opinion because I didn’t know as much about a topic as they professed to. The disrespectful, fallacious, and presumptuous nature of the comment is irrelevant. What is relevant is that when it comes to the Godhead and the supernatural, *none* of us have it fully figured out. So even though I am going to be telling you what I believe, if you ask how it is possible, we get into areas where I don’t thing *anyone* really knows. But belief in something should not be predicated on a full understanding of every aspect of it. Take the Trinity, for example. I believe it because the Bible clearly teaches it. The fact that I don’t understand the physics behind the extra dimensions beyond what we inhabit that make that kind of thing entirely possible is beside the point. When it comes to Christophanies and the pre-incarnate Christ though, the *when* and *how* take a back seat to the consequences of Theophanies *not* being Christ.

Before we get into all of that though, I need to lay out some framework and definitions. First, Theophanies are often defined as an “appearance of God”. I like to think of it more as an interaction with God though. I’m not sure the text of the Old Testament indicates actual sight of God in every instance though. Take the burning bush, for example. I believe God was present there. I don’t think God was *seen* there though. What I am going to be primarily discussing in this piece is actual appearances.

Second, I recognize that my belief in Christophanies is partly based on an argument from silence. In other words, it is based on the assumption that of all the Godhead, Christ is the only one we are told of that has/had a physical body. I’m not suggesting that the Father and Spirit have bodies. I don’t believe the Bible teaches that. I think it is pretty clear that Christ is the only member of the Trinity that has a physical form. But I’m also open to the Godhead containing more than the three identified members of the Trinity. Not only do we have references to Wisdom that are open to interpretation, but the plural nature of “Elohim” and references to the divine council and God being “among the gods” has me leaving a door open to facts not yet in evidence as it were. If that assumption (that Christ is the only member of the Godhead with a body) is incorrect though and it turns out that others members of the Godhead exist and have bodies, then my argument that Theophanies are Christophanies starts to collapse.

Third, part of this topic relies on what one believes about angels. Many Old Testament references refer to encounters with an angel or the “Angel of the Lord” in such a way that appears to indicate that the being spoke as/for God and received worship. Many take these to be Theophanies. I am not sure if we have enough evidence to be conclusive one way or the other though. Often, messengers or emissaries sent on the behalf of one in a particular position were given the honor and respect due the person sending them in a custom called the “law of agency”. You see the concept in John 12:49-50. As such, I am not sure we can be 100% positive that these were “God”. I tend to lean that direction, but could be wrong if it can be shown where a regular angel had a physical body. An indication of such a place might be Acts 7:38 and Acts 7:53 and later in Hebrews 2:2 that appear to indicate that what the Israelites were encountering, even “face to face”, in the Old Testament was an angel. I’m not sure how to make a case for it one way or the other though without begging the question. It could be an angel angel, or it could very well be the Angel of the Lord (more on that later). I lean towards the latter.

Finally, particularly in the Old Testament, I think we have a tendency to equate “God” with “The Father” and not think of Christ unless He is specified. I think this is a dangerous assumption as it robs us of a lot of verses that support the Trinity. As such, I am going to try to be very careful to specify terms like “God”, “Godhead”, “Trinity”, and the specific members *of* the Trinity. Since we know the Son took on earthly form and is “God”, and the Father is Spirit and unseen, I think our default position on Theophanies should be if it’s seen, it’s Christ.

So lets discuss a few incidences of Theophanies and why I believe it was Christ that appeared.
  • Genesis 1-3 talks of the creation, the Creator’s interaction with the creation, and Adam’s interaction with God. John 1:1 and other verses indicate the Creator was Christ. All things were created by Him and for Him. He is the Firstborn of all of creation. I believe the Bible is clear that the Father is spirit, has no body, and no one has ever seen Him (John 5:37, John 6:46, 1 John 4:2, and others). I am assuming that Adam actually saw God because of the physical things we are told God did in the account. He walked with them, talked with them, clothed them, and so forth. If He wasn’t in physical form, I’m not sure what good they thought their hide and seek game after the fall would accomplish.
  • Genesis 12:7-9 mentions Abram clearly “seeing” “the Lord”. Genesis 18:1-33 references a similar case. The Lord appears and shares a meal with Abraham. Don’t think incorporeal spirits do that. As Christ too has the title of Lord, I believe the easiest explanation is that this is Christ.
  • Genesis 22:11-18 - This is an interaction with the Angel of the Lord. He speaks both *as* God as well on God’s behalf. I think this isn’t the Father, but the Son. Two more verses down this list identifies the Angel of the Lord as God. As such, I think it is more than just an angel. And as He actually is said to learn something here in this passage, I don’t think it is the omnipotent Father, but and incarnate Son, whom we are told else where can grow in wisdom and such. More on this later.
  • Genesis 32:22-30 - Jacob physically wrestled with “God” here. Granted, it could have been dark and he never really saw him, but it lasted until daybreak, so I don’t think we want to go down that path. And as it was a physical altercation, I don’t think it was a Spirit he was fighting with. Could be an angel (Angel of the Lord?) though, as Hos 12:3-4 indicates
  • Exodus 3:2 - 4:17 - In this case, the “Angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in the bush. He identifies Himself though as “I am the God” of your father, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As such, I think this does more to identify Who the Angel of the Lord is for future reference than it is a case of actually seeing “God” in physical bodily form. Identity of the Angel of the Lord isn’t certain though as this may just be like a primary spokesman for God. We can’t take it to always be Christ because in Matthew 28:2-3 we see the Angel of the Lord rolling back the stone from the grave. Could that be the post-resurrection Christ? Maybe. But if so, why not say so? The fact that this angel speaks *of* Christ the way he does makes me think that there is a lot of wiggle room here. This is probably the trickiest passage for me. If the Angel of the Lord is God and doing physical things here (rolling away the stone and sitting around), I’d tend to chalk that up as Christ in physical form. But speaking of Him in third person confuses me. Goes back to the idea of there being other members of the Godhead or angels in physical form as a possible solution to this in my head. Maybe I’ll just take the cop-out that physical Theophanies were only Christophanies in the OLD Testament and pretend this Matthew 28 passage doesn’t qualify. LOL
  • Exodus 24:9-11 - In contrast with the account of Moses on Mount Sinai, in this case, Moses and the elders “saw the God of Israel”. Mentions of His feet make me believe this was a bodily incarnation.
  • Deuteronomy 31:14-15 is one of the many cases where it refers to God appearing in flame or smoke or something else. As it isn’t a true bodily appearance, I include these in the “interactions” category as opposed to physical Christophanies. Can Christ take on immaterial form? I don’t know. But we definitely know that the Father and Sprit can. And in some of the cases, like when you compare Exodus 13:21 with Exodus 14:19, it seems to equate some of these appearances as being the Angel of the Lord.
  • Daniel 3:23-25 - A fourth “man” was seen in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. This is often seen to be God. He is said to have the appearance of “a son of the gods”. I’m not quite sure what that means. I think it very well could be Christ, but don’t see anything that absolutely identifies it/him as God. Could very well have been an angel.

So why is there any importance to getting particular about which part of the Trinity visited at particular times? Glad you asked. :) First, if we assume that every Theophany in the Old Testament is the Father, then we not only run contrary to New Testament verses that say that no one has ever seen Him and that He is Spirit, but it also impacts orthodox beliefs of God’s nature and power. If this were the Father, for example, “learning” that Abraham loved God more than he did his son, then God isn’t omnipotent. Open Theism is an attempt to address that. I think it creates more problems than it solves though. We know Christ grew in both wisdom and in stature. We know He didn’t/doesn’t know the date of His return. We know He is God. If we put Him in the story with Abraham instead of the Father, we still maintain the Father’s omnipotence.

But I think it goes beyond omnipotence. I think it also impacts omnipresence. Unless one delves deep into theoretical physics, matter can only exist in one place at any given time. I don’t equate what God is able to do with His nature and character. In other words, His divine nature of mercy and love and grace and judgment and so forth tell us what He is like. That is different from what He is capable of. I believe He has capabilities due to the fact that He exists in dimensions beyond our own that are not part of His being God. I believe angels and other beings exist there as well. I believe an uncreated spirit, by nature, is not bound by the confines of mass and time. It can exist above and through-out our timeline. I believe the Father and the Holy Spirit can be simultaneously with all Christians no matter what your geographic location or time in history. Once you give them mass and form though, it really mucks with the little I understand of physics. Granted, that’s not much. But it is a lot easier for me to grasp an omnipresent spirit outside of our time than it is an omnipresent body within it. So while I can’t rule out the more difficult understandings, I’ll stick with the easier ones if that jives with my understanding of Scripture.

In short, I believe that if the Old Testament interaction with “God” involved Him being in human form, it was most likely Christ. I can find no Scripture to indicate that the Holy Spirit or the Father have taken human form and interacted with mankind. In fact, passages like John 1:18 and 1 Timothy 1:17 would indicate the contrary. Just how this plays into the timeline of the incarnation at Bethlehem though is beyond me. I don’t know if the nativity was the first time Christ took on human form and visited the Old Testament in a time-travel kind of way, or if the nativity account was the only occasion where he was “born” as fully man and fully God and His physical form post-ascension and pre-nativity are something else entirely. I just don’t know. But I like that ignorance a whole lot better than the implications of a Father in physical form. If it wasn’t really God but an emissary on His behalf, then all bets are off. They wouldn’t really be Theophanies at all then, but Angel-ophanies. :) I’ve actually seen some pages that will go that far with this and say that the *only* way that God dealt with man in the Old Testament was through angels and prophets. I am not ready to go that far though. Nor am I going to go to the other extreme that suggest that Christ is all through the Old Testament and that folks in that time understood that it was the Messiah.

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Tags: angel, christ, christophany, lord, of, the, theophany, trinity

Comment by Rey Reynoso on September 28, 2010 at 4:00pm
Wait, you don't think that Christ is now omnipotent and omniscient?
Comment by Daniel on September 28, 2010 at 5:17pm
I believe physical form has its limitations. If/when Christ is in physical form, whenever that happens, I think the wherever is a single place. I don't think He currently physically exists in all places. As far as His omniscience goes, I don't know if He has been told of the date of His return yet or not. We know that at one time He didn't know that. Was it because he was in this physical form? I don't know. I'm ultimately not speculating on His future or current status as I am the fact that I think having a physical Father in the Old Testament has issues that are "solved" if those occurrences were Christ or an Angel representative. I'm more in opposition to those being the Father than I am proposing that I *know* that it was the Son. Does that make sense?


Comment by Marv on September 28, 2010 at 5:35pm
Daniel, some thoughts:
1. If I understand my Theology Proper, the Trinity does not have "parts."
2. Just thinking out loud: I know there has been some discussion about "God" being the Father vs the Son, and so on. Maybe I'm off, but primarily I think of "God" being the Triune being of that name. "God" is also frequently used to refer to the Father, in the NT.
3. The Christophany bit is something I've always heard, was the thing people said, while I was growing up. Now, I'm not quite sure I have any reason to think so. I'm talking specifically about the Angel of the Lord. The text seems to call TAOTL an angel and also refer and interact with (H)im as God. So, it's not exactly God in human form, but God in angelic in human form...

The real problem is we don't really know enough about angels, much less about God's mode of existence to render a "that must be Jesus" answer. I mean I don't feel as if I do. As one wag put it, on another subject, it's "above my pay grade."

My speculationizingismness is that an angel appears as some kind of vehicle or what have you through whom God appears and communicates with man. I don't know if it's "a radio for talking to God" a la ROTLA. But I'm just struck with his being called an "angel." Don't know that Jesus is/should be called an angel. Hebrews suggests not, perhaps, maybe.

Of course "angel" means "messenger." We just tend to translate it as a kind of species of created being. And Jesus certainly is a messenger, even The Messenger of God. Still, the word really does refer to some kind of species of created being, doesn't it?
Comment by Daniel on September 28, 2010 at 5:47pm
I think you've outlined the nebulous nature of this pretty well, Marv. To me, it's kinda like that chart that shows what one must believe versus what they must not deny in order to be saved. When it comes to angels and theophanies, I think it is important to not deny the divine aspect of it. But that is a lot more certain to me than the certainty that these were all cases of the Father in person and in the flesh. I'm not going to go the route of the JWs and say that if it says Elohim or God that it has to be the Father. I think that leads to problems. I'm all for avoiding the problems where I can. :) Particularly at creation, I lean towards these occurrences being Christ. Some of those other cases, I'm not as sure about. Could have been an angel. We will probably never know this side of eternity.
Comment by Jonathan Perez on September 28, 2010 at 6:23pm
Where i was really curious before was the possibility that Daniel had an answer to a question that i haven't resolved and haven't bothered to resolve that's sitting in my backburner.

It's the question of the immutability of God related to the incarnation. God does not change. Yet God became a man. Did this 'change' God? Current answer: I don't know. Of course, the doctrine of immutability may not necessarily include humanness as an unchangeable attribute but i'm simpleminded.

I'll just contribute some thoughts that i had while reading the blog.

1) The reason we suspect a theophany in certain instances of angel appearances was where the angel accepted worship instead of what we have in other instances where people tried to worship the angel. Based on what we know of divine hierarchies, only God is to be worshipped and the angels knew that.

2) Another person of the trinity has been mentioned to have locality. In Genesis, the Holy Spirit was 'somewhere'. Whether this suggests physicality, i don't know but this passage shows that he is somewhere and not everywhere (as how Daniel currently defines omnipresence)

3) I myself believe omnipresence not to say that God is present everywhere but rather that everywhere is in the presence of God. Then again, based on what we know of quantum physics, even light particles know what all other light particles in existence are doing. Could be a moot point.
Comment by Daniel on September 28, 2010 at 6:37pm
I think part of that issue with immutability is dealt with when you separate God's unchanging nature/character from His abilities. At least that is how *I* deal with it. :)
Comment by Rey Reynoso on September 28, 2010 at 6:51pm
You have to think of immutability in terms of the Bible and not in terms of Plato.
Comment by Daniel on September 28, 2010 at 7:01pm
I like Plato. Smells funny though and you can't quite get it all out from underneath your fingernails.
Comment by Harry on September 28, 2010 at 7:05pm
Comment by Apolojedi (Daniel Eaton) 1 hour ago
I believe physical form has its limitations. If/when Christ is in physical form, whenever that happens, I think the wherever is a single place. I don't think He currently physically exists in all places. As far as His omniscience goes, I don't know if He has been told of the date of His return yet or not. We know that at one time He didn't know that. Was it because he was in this physical form? I don't know. I'm ultimately not speculating on His future or current status as I am the fact that I think having a physical Father in the Old Testament has issues that are "solved" if those occurrences were Christ or an Angel representative. I'm more in opposition to those being the Father than I am proposing that I *know* that it was the Son. Does that make sense?
Your reply for Lutherans fall under the Communications of Attributes in the Person of Christ. We believe in the Personal Union of Christ, that is Christ has a Divine Nature and a Human Nature and they can not be separated.
His Divine Nature is that He is the Logos, Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity. The Divine Attributes are: Eternal, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Immortal, and Omniscient.
His Human Nature: he was born of the Virgin Mary, grew, lived, learned, and was mortal, able to suffer and die on the cross.
Christ is thus God-man, thus Christ Body is not held by time or space, being God He can be everywhere with His Spirit and His Body at the same time. Christ Body and Blood can be in heaven and on earth at the same time.
Comment by Daniel on September 28, 2010 at 7:22pm
So if Christ has a body in heaven while also having a body on earth, does He have multiple bodies?


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