Series in Christology—Part 4: The Preincarnate Son of God

{Editor’s note: Footnotes in the printed original were numbered from 19-24, but in this electronic edition are numbered from 1-6, respectively.}

II. The Work of the Preincarnate Son of God

The Old Testament Theophanies

The word theophany, coming from θεός (God) and φαίνω (to appear) has historically been taken to refer to appearances of Christ in the Old Testament. Another term often used is epiphany (appearance to someone). In the Bible, theophanies have reference specifically to Christ.1 Usually they are limited to appearances of Christ in the form of man or angel, other forms of appearance, such as the Shekinah, not being considered as a formal theophany. The principal theophany of the Old Testament is the Angel of Jehovah, which has been shown in previous discussions to be the Son of God appearing in the form of an angel.2

The Angel of Jehovah. As the most frequent form of theophany in the Old Testament, the Angel of Jehovah affords a rich study in revelation of the Person and work of Christ in His preincarnate state. Reference to the Angel of Jehovah or the Angel of the presence is found throughout the entire Old Testament (Gen 16:7-13; 21:17 ; 22:11-18 ; 24:7, 40 ; 31:11 ; 32:24-32 ; cf. Hos 12:4; Gen 48:15, 16; Exod 3:2; cf. Acts 7:30-35; Exod 13:21; cf. 14:19 ; 23:20-23 ; 32:34 ; 33:2 ; Num 20:16; 22:22-35 ; Judg 2:1-4; 5:23 ; 6:11-24 ; 13:3-23 ; 2 Sam 14:17-20; 19:27 ; 24:14-17 ; 1 Kgs 19:5-7; 2 Kgs 1:3, 15; 19:35 ; 1 Chron 21:11-30; Ps 34:7; 35:5-6 ; Eccl 5:6; Isa 37:36; 63:9 ; Dan 3:28?; 6:22? ; Zech 1:9-21; 2:3 ; 3:1-10 ; 4:1-7 ; 5:5-10 ; 6:4-5 ; 12:8 ). In some passages reference is merely to “the angel” or to “the angel of God.” In general, the context determines whether this is specifically a reference to the Angel of Jehovah. There are some passages in which it is not clear (Dan 3:28; 6:22 ). In other references, the context leaves little doubt as to the meaning of the term.

A study of the many passages dealing with the Angel of Jehovah will reveal a most remarkable breadth to the preincarnate work of Christ for His people. At the same time, His Person is revealed in all its grace and righteousness. In the first instance (Gen 16:7-13), Christ is seeking fleeing and disheartened Hagar. To her He gives comfort and assurance. Again in Genesis 21:17-19, Christ as the Angel comes to her aid. It is certainly a revelation of the gracious care of God that in the first two theophanies of Scripture in which the Angel appears, it is on behalf of a friendless and comfortless person who is not even included in major features of the Abrahamic covenant.

In Genesis 22:11-18, the Angel stays the hand of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and a substitute is provided—a beautiful type of the substitution of Christ on behalf of those under the curse of death. The Angel goes before the servant of Abraham seeking a wife for Isaac and prospers his way (Gen 24:7, 40). The Angel ministers to Jacob (Gen 31:11; 48:15, 16 ). He appears to Moses in the burning bush to call him to his work as leader (Exod 3:2). The Angel of God was in the pillar of a cloud and the pillar of fire and led Israel through the wilderness to the promised land (Exod 13:21; 14:19 ; 23:20-23 ; 32:34 ; 33:2 ; Num 20:16; Isa 63:9). He warns Balaam (Num 22:22-35). He warns and judges Israel (Judg 2:1-4). Gideon is called and commissioned as a leader and judge by the Angel (Judg 6:11-24). An entire chapter of Scripture is devoted to the Angel of Jehovah and His dealings with the parents of Samson (Judg 13:3-23). The common belief in the Angel of Jehovah as God Himself is shown in the conversation of various people in the Old Testament: the woman who appeared before David (2 Sam 14:4-20); Mephibosheth (2 Sam 19:27); and Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:28).

The Angel of Jehovah as the righteous judge is revealed also in His judgment upon sin, as in the case of David’s sin in numbering Israel (2 Sam 24:14-17; 1 Chron 21:11-30), and the slaying of 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kgs 19:35; Isa 37:36). The thoughtful care of the Angel of Jehovah is shown in His treatment of Elijah (1 Kgs 19:5-7). He instructs Elijah in his controversy with Ahaziah and the judgment on the messengers (2 Kgs 1:1-16). He is the protector of Daniel (Dan 3:28; 6:22 ), if these passages are correctly applied to the Angel of Jehovah. He is the revealer of secrets to Zechariah in his prophecy.

The combined testimony of these passages portrays the Son of God as exceedingly active in the Old Testament, dealing with sin, providing for those in need, guiding in the path of the will of God, protecting His people from their enemies, and in general executing the providence of God. The references make plain that this ministry is not occasional or exceptional but rather the common and continual ministry of God to His people. The revelation of the Person of the Son of God thus afforded is in complete harmony with the New Testament revelation. The testimony of Scripture has been so complete on this point that in general scholars who accept the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture have been almost of one voice that the Angel of Jehovah is the Christ of the Old Testament. Not only Christian theologians, but Jewish scholars as well have come to this conclusion.3 It is at once a revelation of the Person and preincarnate work of Christ and an evidence for His pre-existence and deity.

Other theophanies. While fewer in number, other forms of theophany are afforded in the Old Testament. In Genesis 18:1-35, Jehovah appears in the form of a man, accompanied by two other men who were probably angels. In view of the revelation afforded in other theophanies, there can be little doubt that this theophany is also an appearance of Christ. Jacob’s experience of wrestling with God (Gen 32:24-32) is identified in Hosea 12:4 as the time when Jacob “had power over the angel, and prevailed.” The appearance of God to the elders of Israel is probably another theophany of Christ (Exod 24:9-11). The cloud of the Lord, the glory of the Lord (Exod 40:38) and the cloudy pillar (Exod 33:9-23) are all to be taken as appearances of Christ in the Old Testament, even though in somewhat different character than a formal theophany like the Angel of Jehovah. It is safe to assume that every visible manifestation of God in bodily form in the Old Testament is to be identified with the Lord Jesus Christ. The prince of the host of Jehovah (Josh 5:13-15), the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah of Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1-28), and other similar appearances are easiest explained as theophanies of Christ. Some passages must, however, remain in dispute, as the appearance of an angel to Daniel (Dan 10:1-21).4 The number of theophanies which are without question furnish one of the major forms of Old Testament revelation of God. Their identification with the Son of God refutes at once the Arian heresy that Christ was a created being and the Socinian and Unitarian perversions of the Person of Christ. For anyone who will accept the Scriptures in their plain intent, there is a clear portrayal of Christ in these Old Testament theophanies.5 salvation of God. Only by denying the accuracy of Scripture can any other view be supported. It is rather curious that the modernist after declaring as spurious or interpolated the portions of early Scripture which oppose the evolutionary theory then turns to what is left of the Scripture for evidence of his own view. In the doctrine of Old Testament salvation, if the Scriptures are accepted as infallible, the revelation of salvation is not a late development of prophetic writers but instead a primary and basic revelation of God to the first man and succeeding generations.

The revelation of universal sin and condemnation. In the account in Genesis 3 of the fall, nothing is made clearer to man than the fact that through his sin he had come under condemnation. This was manifest in hiding from God and in confessions to God. The need for salvation was patent. In the Garden of Eden began the two contradictory systems—the serpent’s suggestion of the possibility of self-improvement and development of natural man, and the revelation of God of sin and depravity and the hopelessness of man’s estate apart from God’s salvation. Here is the fundamental conflict between Biblical Christianity and pagan humanism as reflected in human thought down to our day. As God plainly told Adam and Eve, the penalty of sin is death, both spiritual and physical. There was evident need of salvation, and Adam and Eve knew it.

The revelation of a coming Savior. It is a wonderful revelation of the mercy and love of God that in the Garden of Eden, before He pronounced judgment on Adam and Eve, God—it may have been the Son of God Himself—promised that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). Here was the ray of hope in the darkness of human sin and failure. God had a way of salvation. There can be no question that the reference to the seed of the woman is a specific reference to the Son of God. This is the point of Luke’s genealogy. The coming Savior was to be the seed of the woman—human; and yet in the fact that He is not called the seed of man, we have the foreshadowing of the virgin birth. To Adam it was made very plain that his hope lay in this future child of the woman, that through this child salvation would come from God. God confirmed His mercy to Adam and Eve by driving them out of the Garden—a judgment for sin to be sure, but an act of mercy as well, lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever in bodies of sin.

The revelation of the way of salvation. It must remain for the most part a matter of speculation how much God revealed to Adam which is not recorded in the Scriptures. The extent of pre-Scripture revelation has been greatly underestimated. A study of Job, which was among the first books to be written and deals with a period long before Scripture, reveals a most advanced system of theology based on direct revelation of God. It is remarkable how extensive is the knowledge of theology proper, anthropology and hamartiology, soteriology, and even eschatology as contained in Job. We must believe that God did not leave the world in darkness on knowledge essential to the way of salvation.

In the immediate facts of the Genesis narrative of the lives of Adam and Eve and their children, there is a clear testimony to their knowledge of the way of salvation. Immediately after the account of the fall, the incident of the offerings of Cain and Abel serve to illustrate the extent of their knowledge. Cain’s offering of a bloodless sacrifice is refused by God, and Cain is told that a sin offering lay at the door (literal rendering of sin, Gen 4:7). Cain is plainly told that the way of forgiveness is through offering a bloody sacrifice. Abel’s offering of the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof (Gen 4:4) was accepted. No doubt the offerings reflected the spiritual condition of the offerer, but the illuminating point is that God appeals to Cain on the basis of revelation previously given. Abel and Cain both knew that the sacrifice for sin should be a particular animal, a lamb; a particular lamb, the firstling; and a particular part of the lamb, the fat. Such knowledge could come only from revelation.

The question has often been discussed concerning the condition of salvation in the Old Testament. If the present offer of the grace of God is secured to those who believe in Christ, what was the specific condition of salvation in the Old Testament? The problem has assumed undue proportions as a result of the unwarranted zeal of scholars who emphasize the unity of God’s plan without regard for Biblical dispensational distinctions. It is clear that Old Testament saints did not believe in Christ in the same way and with the same comprehension that believers with the New Testament do. In the nature of the case the issue of faith is to believe in the revelation given. On the other hand there are not two ways of salvation. All salvation of God stems from the Savior, the Son of God, and His work on the cross. It is also clear that the salvation of individual souls requires faith. Even a merciful and gracious God cannot save a soul who passed into eternity in unbelief. The two great essentials of salvation remain the same from the salvation of Adam to the last soul which God takes to Himself in the future. Faith is the condition and the death of Christ is the basis.

The chief difficulty, however, rests in the precise definition of these two elements. Faith in what? The Gospel of grace was given to Paul as new revelation. God does not hold the Old Testament saints to account for revelation given in the New Testament. Faith as a condition of salvation is obviously faith in the promise of God insofar as it is revealed. For Adam and Eve this was faith in the promise that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent—would bring salvation to fallen man and defeat the tempter. As the exact character and work of the Deliverer is only gradually unfolded in the Old Testament, faith took the form of trust in Jehovah Himself without necessarily specific knowledge of the way by which Jehovah was to provide an adequate salvation.

The remaining principal element is the relation of faith to the system of sacrifices immediately instituted under the patriarchal system from Adam to Moses and of faith to the Mosaic system which followed. In what sense were the sacrifices a necessary condition of salvation? Does this constitute a salvation by works?

Even the New Testament emphasizes, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17, R.S.V.). In other words, mere belief which does not issue into works is not real faith at all. There is no fundamental antithesis between James two and Paul in Romans four . James is presenting the issue of whether a person has living faith. Paul is dealing with the issue of justification before God. The principle involved is that salvation is by faith, but that faith if real will have certain manifestations. This same principle can be carried into the Old Testament.

Under the system of sacrifices, God provided an outward means of manifesting inward faith. The sacrifices in themselves could not save. An unbeliever who offered sacrifices was still lost. A believer who really trusted in Jehovah would, on the other hand, be sure to offer his sacrifices. The sacrifices while not work which was acceptable as a ground of salvation before God were nevertheless a work which demonstrated faith. Faith in the Old Testament therefore took a definite outward form of manifestation. In offering the sacrifice, the offerer was assured that he was performing an act of recognition of God as His Savior and in particular a recognition of the promise of the coming seed of the woman, the Son of God Himself. The institution of the Mosaic covenant did not fundamentally alter the way of salvation. It specified more particularly the way of sacrifice. It provided moreover a detailed rule of life and the obligation to obey as a condition for blessing in this life. Salvation was still a work of God for man, not a work of man for God.

The work of the Son of God in salvation. The unfolding of the plan of God in salvation after Adam is the story of progressive revelation. The mass of humanity moved away from the revelation given and was plunged in darkness and sin. Through succeeding generations a remnant continued to believe in God, to receive further light. Noah and his family were delivered from destruction and after the flood he immediately offered his sacrifices. Abraham “believed in Jehovah and he reckoned it to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6). While Abraham’s justification is somewhat different than the Christian’s justification in Christ by baptism of the Spirit, he nevertheless was counted righteous before God because of faith in Jehovah and His promises regarding Abraham’s seed. Sarah is declared in the New Testament to have “considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11, R.S.V.). Moses is declared to have had a personal faith in Christ on the basis of which he forsook Egypt: “He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb 11:26, R.S.V.). The Psalmists are replete with ascriptions of trust in Jehovah for their salvation. It is often presented as taking refuge in Jehovah: “How precious is thy loving kindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge under the shadow of thy wings” (Ps 36:7). “O taste and see that Jehovah is good: Blessed is the man that taketh refuge in him” (Ps 34:8). Of particular interest is the passage in Psalms 2:12, “Blessed are they that take refuge in him.” The context indicates that the him is a specific reference to the Son. To the Son of God is attributed that same confidence and trust that is given to Jehovah.

The work of the Son of God in salvation was not only a matter of salvation from the guilt and condemnation of sin. In many cases the salvation of Jehovah is described in its present application—deliverance from ungodly and wicked men. Again the Psalmists can be taken as illlustrative of this point: “The salvation of the righteous is of Jehovah; He is their stronghold in the time of trouble. And Jehovah helpeth them, and rescueth them: He rescueth them from the wicked, and saveth them, Because they have taken refuge in him” (Ps 37:39-40). The familiar twenty-third Psalm is an expression of this same reality in the experience of David. In declaring, “Jehovah is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1), David is declaring his confidence in the preincarnate Son of God, the Good Shepherd, to care for him as a shepherd cares for his sheep. David believes that the present mercies of God will be crowned by his dwelling “in the house of Jehovah for ever” (Ps 23:6).

The full story of salvation of the Son of God in the Old Testament is too large to be compressed into a limited discussion. Suffice it to say, the salvation provided through the Son of God was a complete salvation. It gave assurance and rest of heart to the believer. It transformed his life even though much of the enablement provided for the believer today was lacking. Salvation included forgiveness, justification as in the case of Abraham, deliverance from evil, and the full-orbed work of God in providence toward His own. The important fact which stands out above all others is that the Savior of the Old Testament is the Savior of the New. He was actively engaged in bringing salvation in its widest sense to those who trusted Him.

The full picture of the Son of God in His preincarnate state usually includes a discussion of Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament and the rich field of typology. Inasmuch as this properly presupposes the incarnation for its fulfillment, the plan of study is to include these two major features of Old Testament theology as an introduction to study of the incarnate Son of God which will immediately follow.

Dallas, Texas

(To be continued in the January-March Number, 1948)

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 The words are also used in Greek mythology of appearances of God.

2 Cf. Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 1947, pp. 165-168.

3 A. C. Gaebelein in his The Angels of God, p. 20, makes the following statement: “it is noteworthy and of great interest that the ancient Jews in their traditions regarded the Angel of the Lord, in every instance, not as an ordinary angel, but as the only mediator between God and the world, the author of all revelations, to whom they gave the name Metatron.” Richard Watson in his Theological Institutes (New York: Nelson & Philipps, 1850, 29th edition), I, 501, also affirms the support of ancient Jews to this interpretation.

4 H. A. Ironside views this passage as a reference to an angel, based on the angel’s need of the help of Michael. William Kelly considers it a theophany. Cf. Lectures on Daniel, by H. A. Ironside, pp. 174-175.

5 The testimony of the early Fathers on the theophanies of Christ in the Old Testament is full and conclusive. Justin Martyr declared: “Our Christ conversed with Moses out of the bush, in the appearance of fire. And Moses received great strength from Christ, who spake to him in the appearance of fire.” Irenaeus wrote: “The Scripture is full of the Son of God’s appearing: sometimes to talk and eat with Abraham, at other times to instruct Noah about the measures of the ark; at another time to seek Adam; at another time to bring down judgment upon Sodom; then again, to direct Jacob in the way; and again, to converse with Moses out of the bush.” Tertullian stated, “It was the Son who judged men from the beginning, destroying that lofty tower, and confounding their languages, punishing the whole world with a flood of waters, and raining fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord pouring it down from the Lord: for he always descended to hold converse with men, from Adam even to the patriarchs and prophets, in visions, in dreams, in mirrors, in dark sentences, always preparing his way from the beginning: neither was it possible, that God who conversed with men upon earth, could be any other than that Word which was to be made flesh.” Quotations from Richard Watson, Theological Institutes, I, 501,502. Watson also cites Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, Theophilus of Antioch, the synod of Antioch, Cyprian, Hilary, St. Basil, and others as holding the same viewpoint of theophanies of Christ in the Old Testament.