“Jesus sightings” in the Old Testament.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 August 2021

From time to time I hear Christians claim Jesus makes appearances in the Old Testament.

And he does. All the time, really—because Jesus is YHWH. When God created the universe, when the LORD singled out Abram ben Terah and renamed him Abraham and relocated him to Canaan, when the LORD had Moses lead the Hebrews out of Egypt and give ’em the Law and covenanted to be their God and they his people: This is Jesus. This isn’t just the God the Father person of the trinity doing stuff, while the Son and Holy Spirit hid in the background, and peeked out once or twice, and made minor appearances. This is the triune God. And Jesus is this God.

John spelled it out in his gospel: It wasn’t the Father, and the Father alone, who created the universe; it’s God. And Jesus is God.

John 1.1-3 KJV
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Because in the beginning God created the heavens and earth, Ge 1.1 a verse all John’s readers knew quite well; and stating the Word of God created everything means Jesus created everything. But no, this doesn’t mean God the Son alone created everything, instead of God the Father: Again, this is the triune God. The LORD God created everything.

So yeah, when you read about the LORD in the Old Testament, that’s Jesus. And when you read things into the LORD’s character and motives, which are inconsistent with Jesus’s demonstrated character and motives in the gospels, you’re misinterpreting the LORD. Jesus came to earth to show us what God is really like. Jn 1.18 He’s our lens. Don’t use others.

Okay, but back to these Christians who claim they’ve sighted Jesus in the OT. Rarely, if ever, do they mean they recognize Jesus is the LORD, and recognize Jesus’s character and motives in the LORD’s actions. Nope; they’re claiming one odd figure or another in the Old Testament is Jesus.

Fr’instance that one time the LORD had lunch with Abraham. Ge 18 That’s gotta be Jesus, they figure, ’cause he appeared as a human, and Jesus is human. (Nevermind that he hadn’t become human yet.)

Or the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah… but since we’re gonna insist on using their slave names, okay; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel 3.23-25 KJV
23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. 24 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonied, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. 25 He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.

Oooh, we Christians respond, it was the Son of God. It’s Jesus!

Thing is, would this truly be what the pagan Nebuchadnezzar meant by his statement? The original Aramaic, בַר אֱלָהִֽין/var Elohín, can either mean “son of God” or “son of the gods,” which is how the ESV, NASB, and NIV chose to put it. The NLT has “looks like a god.” Remember, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t yet know God, much less Jesus, and had no clue what he was seeing.

But we have a clue as to what he was seeing. And let’s be fair; maybe it was God. He hadn’t yet become human, but same as he appeared to Abraham as a human, he appeared to Nebuchadnezzar as a human, ’cause he can do that of he so chooses. If it was God in the fire beside them, it’s Jesus, ’cause Jesus is God.

But more reasonably it was an angel. Same as God later sent an angel to rescue Daniel, Da 6.22 or sent an angel to rescue Simon Peter Ac 12.7 instead of showing up to the prison personally. Yeah Jesus could have done it himself, but he seems to delegate this duty to angels—all of whom were probably really eager for the job anyway. Wouldn’t you be?

“Theophanies” which aren’t theophanies.

There are two figures in the Old Testament which Christians popularly interpret to be special appearances of a pre-incarnate Jesus. These’d be the angel of the LORD, and King Melchizedek of Salem.

Let’s start with this angel. Christians regularly assume it’s the LORD in angelic form. ’Cause frequently this angel speaks as if it’s actually the LORD, and frequently the scriptures mix up whether it’s the angel speaking or God speaking. Moses’s encounter with the burning bush is a good example.

Exodus 3.2-4 KJV
2 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

The subsequent conversation was between Moses and God, not Moses and God’s angel.

Two ways to look at this. The least popular idea, but the one I like best, is the author of Exodus was working with multiple versions of the burning bush story. Some of ’em had an angel appear to Moses, and some had the LORD do it. Since the author was bothered by the idea of the LORD letting anyone see him, the author went with lines from the stories which kept the LORD from being physically visible. It’s not a popular view because people prefer to imagine Moses wrote Exodus, and the idea of editing together multiple texts implies inspired scripture was spliced together from less-than-inspired other sources. I would argue a Spirit-inspired editor could sort out truth from myth from any sources, no matter where they came from… but I’m gonna get outvoted on this. Oh well.

The more common view is recognizing how an ancient herald worked. Kings were too busy and important (and vulnerable) to deliver their own messages, so they sent heralds to do it, and what the herald said was considered equal to if the king said it in person. (Which is why people often did terrible things to the heralds, as a way to show the king just what they planned to do to him.) So if the angel of the LORD is properly working as the LORD’s herald, it’s as if the LORD did say it himself. Thus we can see how an angel could speak as if it’s God, yet not literally be God. Prophets do the very same thing.

And yeah, let’s not rule out the fact God could actually appear in angelic form if he so chooses, and swipe a job from an eager but now hugely disappointed angel. But I still think it best to err on the side of caution: The scriptures describe the appearances as the angel of the LORD, not the LORD himself. If scripture doesn’t say it’s God, let’s not presume it is, overlay our interpretations, and ignore the scriptures. That’s never wise, nor safe.

Now for Melchizedek, which is a more common example of people presuming upon the scriptures. The writer of Hebrews compares Melchizedek with Jesus, because he’s a priest-king whom Abraham tithed to, Ge 14.18-20 and appears to have come out of absolutely nowhere. He’s never mentioned in Genesis before, or since. We don’t know how he became God’s priest, nor how God revealed himself to the people of Salem. (Heck, most Christians assume God didn’t reveal himself to anyone in Canaan but Abraham. This, despite many Canaanite contemporaries in Genesis who clearly knew God and interacted with him. These folks really oughta read Genesis sometime.)

In Israelite culture, you proved you were a priest by your genealogy: Your ancestors had to be priests, descended from Levi ben Israel; and the head priests had to be descended from Aaron ben Amram. But the bible offers no such genealogy for Melchizedek. Yet he’s a priest anyway.

Hebrews 7.3 KJV
Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.

Jesus doesn’t have a priestly ancestry either—and yet he’s our head priest. That’s the point the author of Hebrews was trying to make. Jesus is like Melchizedek. But some overeager Christians have decided Jesus isn’t just like Melchizedek: Jesus is Melchizedek, and the reason Abraham tithed to him was ’cause Abraham realized Melchizedek was God pretending to a human king.

Yeah, no. The writer of Hebrews said no such thing. Deliberately said no such thing. Melchizedek resembles the Son of God, not Melchizedek is the Son of God.

True, we don’t know Melchizedek’s backstory. (Was that his name or his title? Where was Salem?—and is it in any way related to Jerusalem? How’d he and his people first learn of God? What were the Salemites’ religious practices? What was Melchizedek’s personal relationship with Abraham?—or did he even have one?) The idea of a a non-Hebrew, a Canaanite, a gentile, serving as the LORD’s priest back in Abraham’s day, fascinates a lot of people. But let’s not insert an idea into the scriptures when they in fact teach otherwise.

Take the bible literally when it’s deliberately meant to be read that way. Take it allegorically when it’s meant to be read those ways—like in prophecies, parables, apocalypses, poetry, and so forth. The genre doesn’t fit. Hebrews plainly teaches Melchizedek was like Jesus. Not Jesus.

But when you see God, it’s Jesus.

Once again: Paul stated Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. Cl 1.15 When there’s any visible appearance or manifestation that’s clearly God, I don’t believe it’s wrong to consider that interchangeable with Jesus. When the LORD had lunch with Abraham, when 74 Hebrews climbed Sinai to have lunch with the God of Israel, Ex 24.9-11 the being they ate with is Jesus. Even the other appearances, such as the burning bush, the pillar of cloud, and the glory of the LORD in the temple, is Jesus.

True, the Son of God hadn’t assumed the name Jesus until he was born. So technically he wasn’t Jesus yet. And some Christians are gonna be particular about what you call these theophanies. They’ll just say they’re God, and there’s no need to get into which person of the trinity does what.

And no, I’m not trying here to divide the trinity up into specific duties. On the contrary: I’m emphasizing, as God does, his oneness. I’m not saying that, because Jesus walked in paradise with Adam and Eve, Ge 3.8 or proclaimed the Law from Mt. Sinai, Ex 19.16-20 that the Holy Spirit and the Father weren’t involved, or did nothing. Not at all.

I’m trying to make it more clear how Jesus wasn’t hiding behind the scenes till it was time for him to be born. He was always actively involved in our salvation. Jesus is part of every act of God in the bible. Because he’s God. Clear?