by Doug Ward
Did the Messiah appear to the patriarchs hundreds of years before His Incarnation?
God has many ways of introducing people to the Gospel and bringing them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a great joy to hear fellow Christians tell about their personal conversion experiences. One of the most inspiring accounts I have ever heard of God's intervention to lead a person to Jesus is the story of Sharon Allen .
Sharon, who was born in 1945, grew up in
Since Ron fit in so well with
This revelation from Ron was a great shock to
Surprises and Struggles
By the time
With so much at stake,
For many weeks thereafter,
A Mysterious Messenger
What had Sharon Allen seen in the Tanakh to persuade her of Jesus' Messiahship? What truths had empowered a woman in a very patriarchal community to risk her friendships and status within that community and challenge its leaders in lengthy discussions and debates?
In the written and spoken accounts of her story ,
· the famous prophecy of Isaiah 53, which speaks of Messiah's atoning death and resurrection;
· Psalm 22, which seems to give a vivid description, one thousand years in advance, of the Crucifixion;
· Prov. 30:4, which implies that God has a Son;
· Isa. 49:6, which speaks of Messiah as ``a light for the Gentiles.''
In addition, she mentions another scriptural phenomenon that she personally
found to be extremely persuasive. In the Tanakh, a special messenger of
God, often called ``the angel of the Lord'' in English translations, makes a
series of brief appearances to the patriarchs and others (see, for example, the
discussion in ). This messenger, although distinct from God, seems at the
same time to be often identified with God and to possess a number of divine attributes.
Sharon Allen has not been alone in pondering the identity and significance
of the ``angel of the Lord.'' This enigmatic messenger has intrigued
commentators and theologians for centuries. It also turns out that
Definition and Examples
A careful study of the appearances of God recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures has been carried out by Dr. James A. Borland, a Baptist theologian, in his book Christ in the Old Testament . On the basis of his research, Dr. Borland defines Christophanies as
``those unsought, intermittent and temporary, visible and audible manifestations of God the Son in human form, by which God communicated something to certain conscious human beings on earth prior to the birth of Jesus Christ.''
This definition serves to distinguish Christophanies from other ways in
which God has manifested Himself, including dreams and visions; the pillar of
cloud that guided
In formulating his definition of Christophanies, Borland had several specific scriptures in mind. Many, but not all, of them involve the aforementioned ``angel of the Lord.'' Let's examine some of these biblical passages, beginning with those about the angel of the Lord, to understand the motivation for Dr. Borland's definition:
Genesis 16:7-13. Here the angel of the Lord comforts the pregnant Hagar, who is fleeing from her mistress Sarah. He promises that Hagar will have many descendants and predicts some of their character traits.
Borland comments that malak, the Hebrew word for ``angel,'' is used some 214 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The literal meaning of the word is ``messenger,'' and it can refer to different kinds of agents or messengers, including people who carry messages (Gen. 32:3; I Sam. -21); prophets (2 Chron. 36:15-16; Haggai ); and priests (Mal. 2:7); as well as angels. The nature of the malak in a given passage can usually be determined from the context.
There are several indications in Gen. 16:7-13 that Hagar's malak is more than an ``ordinary'' created angel. He can apparently bring events to pass and has knowledge of the future. After his appearance, Hagar is sure that she has seen God (v. 13). On the other hand, his words in v. 11 imply that he is distinct from ``the Lord.''
Gen. 22:1-18. God tests Abraham, directing him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering (verses 1-2). Abraham passes the test, demonstrating his deep faith by his willingness to carry out the sacrifice. Then the angel of the Lord intervenes to provide a ram in Isaac's place and affirm God's blessing upon Abraham and his descendants (vv. 11-18). In verse 12, the malak proclaims,
``Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son''(NIV).
Since the sacrifice was to be offered to God, verse 12 seems to imply the divinity of the angel of the Lord. Borland points out that verses 15-18 constitute God's climactic revelation to Abraham, so that it would have been strange for God to have delegated the delivery of this message to a mere created angel. Verses 15-18 thus provide an additional indication that the malak was divine.
Gen. 31:11-13. Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that ``the angel of God'' had appeared to him in a dream. In this dream, the angel calls himself ``the God of Bethel,'' a reference to a previous dream revelation from God (Gen. 28:10-15). Years later, in pronouncing a blessing upon Joseph, Jacob invokes ``the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm ... '' (Gen. 48:15-16). These scriptures suggest that Jacob viewed the angel of the Lord as divine.
Exod. 3. The angel of the Lord appears to Moses ``in flames of fire from within a bush'' (v. 2), catching Moses' attention when the bush does not burn up. Then God calls to Moses from within the bush and announces himself as ``the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob'' (v. 6).
Here the angel of the Lord performs a miracle, speaks as God, and announces that the ground around the bush is hallowed by his presence there. He reveals that his name is ``I AM'' (v. 14), a designation that Jesus later applies to himself (John 8:58). God will later speak of the direct manner in which He communicates with Moses and the close relationship that they have (Num. 12:6-8); Exodus 3 presents one example of this direct communication.
Exod. 23:20-23. God tells the Israelites at Sinai that He is sending an angel to be with them on the trip to the Promised Land. This malak bears God's Name, is to be obeyed, and has the power to forgive sins (v. 21). All of these characteristics suggest the angel's divinity.
Later, after the sin of the golden calf, God says that He will still send an angel before them, but that He himself would not accompany them (Exod. 33:2-3). These verses imply that (a) the angel of Exodus 33 is a lesser angel than the one of Exodus 23; and (b) the presence of the Exodus 23 angel is, in effect, God's own presence.
Then, in response to Moses' diligent intercession on Israel's behalf, God agrees to reinstate His initial promise: His Presence would go with the Israelites on their journey (Exod. 33:15-17). In I Cor. 10:4, the apostle Paul writes that Christ was ``the spiritual rock that accompanied them.''
Num. 22:35-38. The angel of the Lord admonishes Balaam to ``speak only what I tell you.'' Balaam subsequently says, ``I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.'' This passage seems to equate the words of the angel with the words of God.
Judges 2:1-5. The angel of the Lord states that he has brought the Israelites out of Egypt, made an unbreakable covenant with them, and been disobeyed by them. These statements again point to the divinity of the angel of Lord.
Judges 6:11-23. Gideon's visitor is called ``the angel of the Lord'' in vv. 11-13, 20-21 and ``the Lord'' in vv. 14-18. The angel of the Lord accepts an offering from Gideon, a further indication of the angel's divinity. (Ordinary angels refuse to accept worship in Rev. 19:10; 22:9.)
Judges 13. The angel of the Lord appears to Manoah and his wife in human form and announces the upcoming birth of Samson. The angel seems to be distinct from God (v. 16). The angel says that his name is ``beyond understanding,'' then disappears in the flame of their offering (vv. 17-20). Afterwards, Manoah believes that he has seen God.
The Bible records additional brief appearances of a ``man'' who is no ordinary human being:
Gen. 18-19. Abraham and Sarah are visited by three men (18:2), but according to 18:1, this visit constitutes an appearance of God. One of the three seems to be divine, since he is called ``the Lord'' in ,13,17, 20, etc. This visitor promises that Sarah will give birth to a son in a year and announces his intention to bring judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham calls him ``the Judge of all the earth,'' and he agrees to Abraham's petition that Sodom and Gomorrah be spared if at least ten righteous people can be found in those cities. The other two visitors-angels, as we learn in 19:2-then travel on to Sodom.
Finally, after Lot and his family are evacuated from Sodom, we read in 19:24 that ``the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven'' (KJV). Here two different ``Lords'' are apparently mentioned. Was the first one Abraham's divine visitor?
Genesis 32:24-30. Jacob wrestles all night with a ``man'' who refuses to disclose his name but grants Jacob's request for a blessing. He gives Jacob the new name Israel (``he struggles with God''), and afterwards Jacob is convinced that he has wrestled with God. The prophet Hosea later writes of Jacob,
``In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor...'' (Hosea 12:3-4).
Joshua 5:13-15. Shortly before the battle of Jericho, Joshua sees a man holding a sword. The man identifies himself as ``commander of the army of the Lord.'' In a scene reminiscent of Exodus 3:5, the man orders Joshua to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.
These passages and others describe a messenger of God who is both distinct from God and divine. They provide a large body of evidence that Christophanies as specified by the Borland definition did in fact occur.
Purposes of the Christophanies
Having studied some of the evidence that Christophanies occurred, let us now consider the reasons why God might have chosen to reveal Himself in this way. Borland  explains that these preincarnate appearances of the Son of God served a number of important purposes, both for those who witnessed them and for people in later generations.
First of all, Christophanies demonstrate that the infinite and invisible Creator of the universe is also a personal God who cares deeply about his creation. With these appearances, God satisfied the needs of individuals for fellowship, encouragement, and direction. He used them to call people like Moses, Gideon, and Samuel to special service; and they were an integral part of His ongoing close relationships with Abraham and Moses. Through Christophanies, God provided instruction, gave warnings of coming judgment, confirmed His promises, and directed His plan of salvation.
Second, the Christophanies were a part of God's advance announcement of the coming of the Messiah. They foreshadowed the Incarnation and hint at the future time when God will be with His people forever (Rev. 21:3). One Messianic prophecy, Micah 5:2, says that the Messiah's ``goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting'' (KJV). The Christophanies, as part of those ``goings forth,'' reveal the Messiah in His roles as prophet, priest, and servant of mankind. By showing that the work of Jesus Christ spans the centuries, both B.C. and A.D., they indicate the unity of God's word and purpose.
Finally, the Christophanies carry theological information about God's nature. Specifically, they are part of God's progressive revelation that His oneness is a ``compound unity.'' They have helped Sharon Allen-and surely many others-to accept the Messiahship and Deity of Jesus Christ.
The Christian belief that the Messiah made preincarnate appearances to the patriarchs goes back well over 1800 years. In the second century A.D., the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c.100-165) pointed to some of the scriptures we have examined to assert a plurality of divine persons and the divinity of Jesus Christ (Dialogues with Trypho, Chapters 56-61, 126-129). Also in the second century, Irenaeus (Against Heresies 4.7.4) wrote that Christ was ``that God who spoke in human shape to Abraham, and again to Moses.'' Others in the second century who held similar views included Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. In the fourth century, the Apostolic Constitutions (Book 5, Section 20) said of Jesus, ``Him did Jacob see as a man....Him did Abraham entertain, and acknowledge to be the Judge, and his Lord. Him did Moses see in the bush....Him did Joshua the son of Nun see, as the captain of the Lord's host.''
The Christophanies have also been a source of controversy among Christians, however. In the fourth century, the Arians, who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, used the belief in the Old Testament Christophanies to support their cause. They argued that if God the Father is invisible and God the Son had been seen, then the Father must have a distinct and higher nature than the Son. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) countered the Arians by asserting that the messengers who appeared to the patriarchs were actually ordinary angels. According to this model, which Borland has termed the ``finite angel representative theory,'' the text seems to speak of the angel of the Lord in divine terms because God had given the malak, as His agent, full authority to act in His place. The angel's words and actions were, in effect, those of God Himself because of his position as God's official representative. God had empowered the angel to speak for Him and to receive worship on His behalf.
The finite angel representative theory has had many adherents over the centuries, partly because of Augustine's influence. Dr. William Graham MacDonald, a modern advocate of this model , points to two scriptural examples to illustrate how closely an agent in the Tanakh is identified with the one who sent him. In Gen. 44:10, Joseph's steward tells Joseph's brothers that whoever is found to have his master's silver cup ``will become my slave.'' Here the steward says ``my slave'' when he probably means ``Joseph's slave.'' Moreover, in Deut. 29:2-6 Moses seems to shift from speaking about God in the third person in verse 2 to speaking about Him in the first person in verse 6.
In response to the finite angel representative theory, Borland points out that his careful definition of Christophanies does not support an Arian position, since temporary manifestations of Christ in human form do not necessarily imply that the Father had a higher nature than the preincarnate Son. He also asserts that examples like Deut. 29:2-6 are rare in scripture. One can find other biblical examples in which an agent very specifically states his credentials or otherwise makes a clear distinction between himself and his master (e.g., Gen. 24; Luke 1:19).
Augustine's view was the dominant one in medieval Christianity, but a belief in Christophanies regained popularity during the time of the Protestant Reformation when it was espoused by both Calvinists and Lutherans. Today Christians are far from unanimous on this issue, with a belief in Christophanies being especially common among conservative Christians.
When Sharon Allen studied the works of ancient and medieval Jewish commentators in her search for truth, she would have read about the finite angel representative theory. She also would have encountered what Borland calls the ``impersonal agency theory,'' a view that has been held by many Jewish interpreters since medieval times. This theory says that references in the text to the ``angel of the Lord'' are simply another way of describing God's actions, especially those that are relatively indirect. For example, when God says in Exodus 23:20-23 that He is ``sending an angel'' ahead of the Israelites, He means that He is going to basically relate to them according to the laws of cause and effect of the Torah that He has recently revealed to them. In contrast, for God to accompany them Himself would mean that He would personally intervene to bring them special help or punishment (see ). The impersonal agency theory provides a very clever means of harmonizing Exodus 23 and Exodus 33, but it does not seem to adequately account for the personality and attributes of the one who appears in many of the divine manifestations discussed above. Apparently Sharon did not find this theory convincing, and I also am not persuaded by it.
The identity of the angel of the Lord and of the suprahuman ``man'' who visited the patriarchs has been the subject of much speculation for centuries. Many, though not all, Christians believe that these appearances were preincarnate manifestations of God the Son. Such a view is consistent with orthodox Christian theology and has helped lead many to a conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.
1. Sharon R. Allen, ``Yiddishkeit,'' pp. 81-103 in They Thought for Themselves, Sid Roth, Editor, Messianic Vision Press, P.O. Box 1918, Brunswick, Georgia, 1996.
2. Ezra Bick, ``God, the Angel, and the Jews.”
3. James A. Borland, Christ in the Old Testament, Moody Press, Chicago, 1978; revised edition published by Christian Focus Publications, 1999.
4. William Graham MacDonald, ``Christology and `The Angel of the Lord''', pp. 324-335 in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation; Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney Presented by His Former Students, Gerald F. Hawthorne, Editor, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1975.
5. Howard Morgan, ``The Angel of the Lord: Understanding the Messiah from Images in the Hebrew Scriptures.'' Restore, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2000), pp. 20-23.
1Borland's definition also excludes the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, which are called Christophanies according to some other definitions.
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