Real Presence in the Old Testament

In 268 AD, a bishop of Antioch, named Paul of Samosata, had begun teaching an early form of Unitarianism and Monarchianism. Specifically, he was teaching that Jesus was simply a human being who had been infused with the divine Logos: a man who became God, not God who became man. Controversy about his teaching began to grow, and a group of six bishops, led by Hymenaeus of Jerusalem, wrote Paul a letter,[1] laying out the orthodox understanding of the churches and asking for his agreement. They write,

“It seemed [good] to us to set forth a written account concerning the faith we received from the beginning, that has been handed down and maintained in the universal and holy church until this very day received from the blessed apostles.”

Then, speaking about the identity of God the Son, they write,

“This Son, begotten, the one and only Son, the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, the wisdom and word and power of God, existing before the ages, not as to foreknowledge but as to being and nature God, Son of God, we confess and preach having come to this knowledge from both the Old and New Testaments.”

The bishops then begin to trace how God the Son was clearly revealed as the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament prior to his incarnation. Referencing Genesis 18, 19, 22, 31, 32; Exodus 3, 33, and numerous other passages, they explain the Angel of the Lord as the clear revelation of God the Son, which they say was the universal understanding of the churches, handed down by the Apostles themselves. And they end the letter asking for Paul of Samosata’s agreement.[2] Bogdan Bucur explains, “Paul is challenged to think and to teach in concert with the signatories… Part of the doctrinal litmus test is the Christological interpretation of [these OT passages].”[3]

In other words, they viewed this Divine Angel interpretation as practically a creedal confession among the early churches as to how to understand Jesus in the Old Testament and part of the argument for Jesus’ pre-incarnate divinity.

Unfortunately, this conviction and consensus regarding the revelation of God the Son in the Old Testament has been minimized over the last 300 years.[4] Many modern books on the revelation of the Trinity fail to discuss any Old Testament passages at all as definitively revealing God the Son as present in the Old Testament.[5] Ironically, when the doctrine of the Trinity was being explored by the early church, it was the exact opposite, and the Fathers constantly made reference to Christ’s real presence in the Old Testament. Bucur again writes, “Theologically, the identification of Christ with the Glory, Name, Angel, or Son of Man manifested to the patriarchs and prophets is a constitutive element of early Christology.”[6]

Among the early Fathers who clearly take a Christological interpretation of Old Testament theophanies are:

  • The Shepherd of Hermas
  • Justin Martyr, Irenaeus
  • Theophilus of Antioch
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Tertullian
  • Origen
  • Novatian
  • Cyprian
  • Lactantius
  • Eusebius
  • Athanasius
  • Cyril of Jerusalem
  • Basil the Great
  • Hilary of Poitiers
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Chrysostom
  • Jerome
  • Theodoret

And this is only a partial list.[7]

Many of the early church arguments for Christ’s pre-incarnate divinity depended on a revealed Trinity in the Old Testament — a Yahweh who was both sender and sent, distinguishable and indistinguishable. Texts like Exodus 23:20-21 were seen as crucial:

“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.” 

Concerning this passage, Theodoret wrote,

“Now, as he is also called ‘angel’ we should realize that it was not God the Father who appeared to Moses. After all, is the Father anyone’s messenger? Rather, it was the only-begotten Son, ‘The angel of the great counsel,’ (Is. 9:6 LXX)… As Scripture uses the term “Angel,” not to suggest a subordinate minister, but to indicate the person of the Only-begotten, so it goes on to proclaim his nature and authority when it relates that he declared ‘I am who am,’ and ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This is my everlasting name and memorial for all generations.’ This indicates his divinity and shows his everlasting eternity.”[8]

During the Exodus, Moses had said, “And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt” (Num. 20:16). Isaiah calls this angel “the Angel of God’s presence” [פָּנֶה , “face”] (Isaiah 63:9; cf. Gen. 48:15-16). Malachi 3:1 calls him “the Angel of the Covenant” who is going to come again, echoing the LXX of Isaiah 9:6: “His name shall be called, the Angel of Great Counsel.”

Commenting on Genesis 48:15-16, Athanasius wrote,

“None of created and natural angels did [Jacob] join to God their Creator, nor rejecting God that fed him did he from any angel ask the blessing on his grandsons; but in saying, ‘Who delivered me from all evil’, he showed that it was no created angel, but the Word of God, whom he joined to the Father in his prayer… For knowing that He is also called the Father’s ‘Angel of Great Counsel’, he said that none other than He was the Giver of blessing and Deliverer from evil.”[9]

Even up to the time of the Reformation, this Christological interpretation was paramount. John Owen went so far as to write,

“Some late interpreters would apply all these appearances to a created delegated angel. The conceit of this is irreconcilable with the sacred text, as we have already shown, and it is contrary to the sense of the ancient writers of the Christian church.”[10]

Again, Owen says, “This is an invention crafted to evade the appearances of the Son of God in the Old Testament. It is against the interpretation of all antiquity. And it is contrary to any reason or instance produced to make it good.”[11] Similarly, the French Huguenot scholar Pierre Allix wrote, “I scruple not to assert that the ancient Christians ascribed all the appearances of God in Moses’ writings to the eternal Logos.”[12]

Or, in the words of Calvin,

“We have said that in the books of Moses the name of Jehovah is often attributed to the presiding Angel, who was undoubtedly the only-begotten Son of God. He is indeed very God, and yet in the person of Mediator by dispensation, he is inferior to God. I willingly receive what ancient writers teach on this subject—that when Christ anciently appeared in human form, it was a prelude to the mystery which was afterwards exhibited when God was manifested in the flesh.”[13]

Jonathan Edwards likewise said,

“As soon as man fell, Christ entered on his mediatorial work. Then it was that he began to execute the work and office of a mediator… He was then appointed the Captain of the Lord’s hosts, the Captain of their salvation… [God the Father] would henceforward act only through a mediator, either in teaching men, or in governing, or bestowing any benefits on them. And therefore, when we read in sacred history what God did, from time to time, towards his church and people, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read of God appearing after the fall, in some visible form or outward symbol of his presence, we are ordinarily, if not universally, to understand it of the second person of the Trinity.”[14]

More recently, Herman Bavinck explained,

“The Messenger of the Lord (מלאך יהוה) occupies a special place. This Malak YHWH is not an independent symbol nor a created angel but a true personal revelation and appearance of God, distinct from him (Ex 23:20–23; 33:14f.; Isa. 63:8, 9) and still one with him in name (Gen 16:13; 31:13; 32:28, 30; 48:15, 16; Ex 3:2f.; 23:20–23; Jdg 13:3), in power (Gen 16:10, 11; 21:18; 18:14, 18; Ex. 14:19; Jdg 6:21), in redemption and blessing (Gen 48:16; Ex 3:8; 23:20; Isa 63:8, 9), in adoration and honor (Gen 18:3; 22:12; Ex 23:21) ... The angel of the covenant again appears in prophecy (Zech. 1:8–12:3) and will come to his temple (Mal. 3:1). Theophany reaches its climax, however, in Christ who is the (Angel, Glory, Image, Word, Son of God) in whom God is fully revealed and fully given.”

And Geerhardus Vos wrote,

“The Angel distinguishes himself from Jehovah, speaking of Him in the third person, and…in the same utterance he speaks of God in the first person. Of this phenomenon various explanations have been offered… We must assume that behind the twofold representation there lies a real manifoldness in the inner life of the Deity. If the Angel sent were Himself partaker of Godhead, then He could refer to God as his sender, and at the same time speak as God, and in both cases there would be reality behind it. Without this much of what we call the Trinity, the transaction could not but have been unreal and illusory… The Angel-conception points back to an inner distinction within the Godhead, so as to make the Angel a prefiguration of the incarnate Christ.”[15]

And A. T. Hanson argued,

“One element in NT exegesis…, rather than typology as such, is the most important clue to the understanding of the NT exegesis of the OT. That element may be called the real presence of the pre-existent Christ in OT history— or, to be more accurate, the real presence of the pre-existent Jesus. ‘Jesus in the Old Testament’ is, in fact, the way in which the NT writers for the most part thought of it ... The normative approach of the NT writers to the OT is not that of typology but rather that of what we have called ‘real presence.’”[16]

Given the above, Christians should not shy away from a belief in the Son’s real presence and revelation in the Old Testament. To the contrary, the Christophanic interpretation of Old Testament theophany is both the oldest and most consistent interpretive tradition in Christian history.[17] Understanding Christ’s real presence deepens and enlivens our understanding of the Old Testament and the plan of God for our salvation through the revelation and, ultimately, the incarnation of God the Son.


Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church in Media, PA. Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He previously served as the Founding Chairman of the Reformed Baptist Network, is the secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and is a lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which can be found at ekklesiahymns.org.


Related Links

The Angel of the Lord: Christ in the Old Testament by Matt Foreman

"All Things in Christ" by Richard Barcellos 

"Transfiguration as Theophany" by Alistair Roberts

"Christ, Fully-Human" by Adam Parker

Reformed Catholicity, edited by Michael Allen & Scott Swain 

The Glory of Christ by John Owen


Notes

[1] Known historically as “The Letter of Six Bishops to Paul of Samosata.”

[2] Paul of Samosata would later be declared a heretic at the Synod of Antioch in 269 AD and finally deposed of his bishopric in 272 AD.

[3] Bogdan G. Bucur, “The Early Christian Reception of Genesis 18: From Theophany to Trinitarian Symbolism,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 23:2 (2015): 251, n.19 [245-72].

[4] The reluctance to identify Old Testament Christophanies historically coincided with the rise of liberal criticism and perhaps an embarrassment over some of the interpretive techniques of the early church.

[5] As one example, Michael Reeves book, Delighting in the Trinity, is a wonderful introduction to the doctrine, but when discussing the revelation of the Son, he fails to mention a single Old Testament passage. Many sources on ‘finding Christ in the Old Testament’ will mention typology, or prophecy, or analogy, but fail to consider Christ’s “real presence”.

[6] Bogdan Bucur, “Gregory Nazianzen’s Reading of Habbakuk 3:2 and Its Reception: A Lesson from Byzantine Scripture Exegesis,” Pro

[7] A comprehensive list is found in Joseph Barbel, Christos Angelos: Die Anschauung von Christus als Bote Und Engle in der gelehrten und volkstümlichen Literatur des christlichen Altertums (Bottrop: 1941), 315-24. See also Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents & Early Evidence (Boston: Brill, 1998), esp. 187-228.

[8] Theodoret, Questions on the Octateuch: On Exodus Q.5

[9] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Four Discourses Against the Arians” 3.12, in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 4.

[10] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 18, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 229.

[11] Ibid., 221.  

[12] Pierre Allix, “A Dissertation Concerning the Angel,” in The Judgment of the Ancient Jewish Church Against the Unitarians (London: R. Chiswell, 1699), 438.

[13] Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Joshua (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software), 87.

[14] Jonathan Edwards, History of the Work of Redemption (with notes) (London: T. Pitcher, 1793] 64.

[15] Geerhardos Vos, Biblical Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipe & Stock, 2003), 72-73,75.

[16] A. T. Hanson, Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. (London: SPCK, 1965) 7-8.

[17] In fact, even prior to the New Testament, many would argue that the Jews themselves had a belief in a  Godhead and did not believe in a Unitarian God. For more on this idea, see Alan Segal’s Two Powers In Heaven, Daniel Boyarin’s “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binatarianism and the Prologue to John.” Also, Pierre Allix’s The Judgment of the Ancient Jewish Church Against the Unitarians, and John Owen’s “Exercitation 10”, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vol.1.


Painting: "Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant" by Benjamin West

MORE FROM THE ALLIANCE

On YouTube

The Story of Scripture

Find Out More

Register for the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology

Reformed Resources

2023 Annual Report