Are there any reasons to believe Christ appeared to Old Testament characters?

Some suggest that at least one of Abraham’s three guests in Genesis 18:1-15 was Christ. But is this the case? As for my research and reading from John Walton’s excellent commentary on Genesis, there’s sufficient reason to believe Abraham did not speak with Jesus. Read on.

Some historical background: As early as Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) interpreters equated the Angel of the Lord with some notion of the pre-incarnate Christ (notwithstanding Augustine and Athanasius who were reluctant to impose meaning on Scripture that was not explicit). Since much of early church controversies had to do with Christology, there were strong tendencies to defend a pre-incarnate Christ.


Despite the insistence that certain passages are packed with particular theological or apologetic “nuggets”, it’s paramount that we give first priority to authorial intent and be conservative when gleaning significance or practicum from Scripture. So much tradition has missed the mark in this way and gained significant momentum such that many today cannot see a text outside tradition. Sadly, whenever this occurs the author’s intent takes the hit (consider popular usages of Matt. 18:20; Phil. 4:13, for instance). Similarly, what is often discovered from a text is merely a support for one’s theology/tradition, rather than the straight forward meaning of the author. As important as apologetics and theology are, they must always be subordinated to careful and responsible exegesis (grammatical, cultural, historical, et al.). Unless and until sound exegesis has been accomplished, we should proceed with caution toward any supposed meaning or significance. God does not need any help with inspiration!

The text: Gen. 18:1-2 says the “LORD appeared to Abraham…Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby” (NIV). A first reading suggests that the LORD’s appearance was in addition to the three men, thus the three men likely did not include a pre-incarnate Christ. If one of the three is deity, then what happens to the LORD’s appearance? Throughout Genesis 18, the text indicates who is speaking (e.g., “then the LORD said”), but never explicitly states that one of the three speak. Moreover, the LORD leaves at the end of Gen. 18 and 19:1 begins not with “three men” but with “two angels.” Hum… While this could be some kind of theophany (= appearance of God), I’m reluctant to see that the pre-incarnate Christ was present. Simply because Genesis 19:1 indicates “two angels” are now on stage while “three men” were in Abraham’s story at Genesis 18 is hardly convincing evidence for Christ being present to Abraham.

Additional biblical data: Whenever an “angel of the LORD” speaks/appears in the Old Testament (Gen. 16:7-14; 21:17-18; 22:11-18; Ex. 3:2-6; Num. 22:35; 23:5; Judg. 2:1-4; 13; Zech. 3) it could be said that the angel spoke on behalf of the LORD. While the genitive “of the LORD” could be translated as an appositive “which is the LORD” (as when we say “the state of Colorado” while we really mean “the state which is Colorado”), there is sufficient reason to understand it as a representative speaking on God’s behalf, as in the precedent of prophets who speak on God’s behalf but are not God. And, although worship might occur during these appearances, in no instance does the text intimate the angel is receiving the worship. In some cases “angel of the LORD” is translated “the LORD’s messenger” (Hag. 1:13). But, given the first of the ten commandments, Israel would not confuse Haggai the prophet with God (Hag. 1:13).

Some more historical background: Understanding the role of an official messenger in the ancient world clears up much of this confusion. The closet parallel in today’s society is a head of state who speaks as an ambassador on behalf of the president and is accorded the same treatment of the president. Yet, there is no confusion about the ambassador’s identity; clearly he is not the president. In ancient Ugaritic literature (circa Abraham’s time), messengers often spoke in the first-person as if they were the one whom they represented. Thus, they were not only envoys of a god, but exercised the same powers of their god. A good example of this is when Moses speaks in the first-person as if God were speaking (Deut. 29:2-6). (Incidentally, this gives us considerable insight into the importance of Joseph’s role in Pharaoh’s house and Daniel’s in Nebuchadnezzar’s house.)

Walton’s conclusion on Genesis 18:1-15? “Given a contextual explanation for the ‘irregularities’ of the text on the role of the messenger in the ancient world, claims that those textual irregularities can only be explained by an angel being the pre-incarnate Christ can no longer be justified.”

One more note (not from any commentary): 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 clearly states that Christ was present in the Old Testament (a “Christophany” of sorts). Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the pre-incarnate Christ did appear to some in the Old Testament. Athough Christ was/is the pre-existing Logos of God, he is not literally a “rock,” so there is room for metaphor in Scripture. That Christ was present in Old Testament days is not a matter of debate; how Christ is present, unless explicit, remains an interpretive question.

Incidentally, for good information on angels in general see the online, multi-volume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.

Spread the word (please & thank you) 


  1. Hey Paul,

    I’ve read Walton’s Genesis commentary and found his discussion of this issue very interesting and good food for thought. Great commentary!

    I’m curious though, that in whatever type of personal being God spoke though to Abraham (or anyone else mentioned in scriptures or through the faitfhul preached word today for that matter) as His messenger-angel, whether that messenger was a man, one the divine persons of the Trinity, or as a another heavenly angel, would it not be the case that the second person of the Trinity, who was/is God’s eternal Word in divine personhood, had been present somehow in the Lord’s spoken words to Abraham anyway, perhaps as he was with Israel and the Rock that provided water in the wilderness thorugh Moses’ words?

    In Phil. 2:11 Paul identifies Jesus with the old covenant name of LORD (YHWH)when he quotes Isaiah 45:23 in regards to His heavenly rule over the nations of the earth being submissive to his rule.

    Whatever the case about Genesis and Abraham speaking directly with one of the Triune persons or not, it would seem that in some manner the second person of the Trinity, the divine word in person, is somehow present in that dialogue or any dialogue by any means where God’s word is communicated to a man.

    Just shooting from the hip.

  2. Hi Ken,
    Thanks for chiming in here. It’s good to hear from you on this.

    Let me see if I understand you correctly. Your point is that the divine Logos is “present somehow” in God’s word when it is faithfully spoken by another. I suppose this is the stuff that makes a prophet, well, a prophet (see 1 Kings 19:11ff, e.g.). Without doubt, whenever our words align with God’s Word, then the eternal Word is present in some sense (cf., Matthew 18:20 comes to mind here).

    I wonder, however, if Genesis 18 is anything like a theophany. As I understand, a theophany is typically understood to involve some kind of visual manifestation of God. Take Judges 13:2-24 for instance. Manoah, after seeing an “angel of the Lord,” thought his days were over when he announced to his wife “we are doomed to die…we have seen God” (v. 22). As the story continues, we find that Manoah and his wife did not die, since they only saw God via His angel. Without doubt Manoah did see something[one], but it was likely not God, since “no man shall see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). God occasionally manifests himself using the medium of sight, yet in the Old Testament He always seemed to use “signs” or “pointers” as in a burning bush, pillar of fire, or angels.

    With the advent of Christ’s incarnation, the eternal Logos, all of this is changed (John 1:14). In fact, a strong rebuke is issued to Philip for not recognizing the Father’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth (John 14:7-11).
    Now, there are many ways to be present to or with someone (see my earlier entry that speaks to various ways of being present to another). Here, however, I think it important to distinguish carefully between conveying God’s words to others and being the God who
    . That God is present in His words is beyond doubt; that the messenger is God is highly doubtful. I’m sure you’d agree here.

    Philosophically speaking, since the presence of Christ is at issue, it would logically follow that if Christ always shares all the necessary attributes of being fully God (one of which includes omnipresence), then there is no time in which nor place wherein Christ is not present. How much more so in God’s words!? Hence, your point that Christ is present whenever his words are spoken.

    Nevertheless, I maintain that it is not the messenger who is inspired, but the message (in so far as it comports with Scripture), and Christ’s presence is distinct from his human messengers.

  3. The point that both you and Walton make about when a/the messenger/angel of the Lord speaks in the first-person, that this does not necessarily always demand that it is one of the divine persons speaking directly is very important and should encourage careful reading of the text in context.

    My point about the presence of Christ in the spoken words of His appointed non-divine messengers was made simply for the sake of attempting to show that the Triune God is a relational God who loves words and various kinds of speech to convey His words, such as creation, poetry, stories, jokes, parables, riddles, enigmas, songs, writing, metaphors, analogies, word plays, alliteration, etc. This relational love of words can be said each of Father, Son, and Spirit. My emphasis on the divine second person of Christ Jesus in regards to words was simply that the scripture seems to emphasize the aspect of divine words and speech in Him by referring uniquely to Him as the Eternal Logos, and not in this particular manner in regards to the other two divine persons of Father and Spirit, yet not to their exclusion either in their use and love of various types of speech and words–nothing more and nothing less.

    Allow me to stir the pot a bit here. In Genesis 18:1 the text states that the Lord appeared to Abraham. In verse 2 the text refers to Abraham looking and seeing with his eyes at three men (There seems to be a word-play throughout chapters 18-19 in regards to seeing and eyes). In such a close context, it would seem natural that Abraham is seeing what appeared to him in 18:1which in part would seem to be the appearance of the Lord.

    Now is this appearance of the Lord an angelic representative messenger or a divine person Himself? Though in the bible the text does often speak in the first person for YHWH when a non-divine messenger is sent for Him, does the bible ever speak of an “appearance” of a non-divine messenger in the first-person as YHWH without qualification or clarification? Could the writer of Genesis rightly call the visible appearance of an angelic messenger an appearance of God without clarification and could Abraham do so as well throughout the rest of chapter 18 (18:13, 14, 17, 19, 20-30), knowing that he was addressing an angel in the first-person as YHWH? If this is an appearance of a non-divine messenger speaking in the first person for YHWH, then it would seem that it would logically follow in context that Abraham was taking counsel with God via the mediation of an angel and not directly with God Himself, while knowingly addressing a particular angel as YHWH.

    To push this a little further then, when the text speaks in the first-person concerning other appearances of YHWH to the patriarchs in Genesis, could it be possible that these were also appearances of a non-divine representative messenger/angel of YHWH in reality and that the original writer of the text knew this and expected his original readers to naturally understand that? Compare 18:1-2 with Gen. 12:7, 17:1, 26:2, 26:24, and 35:9. If so, then should one at the very least be open to a similar interpretation of these other similar texts in Genesis? Should one also be open to the idea that God never directly spoke to Adam in the garden prior to or after the fall but that it was possibly an angelic messenger speaking in the Lord’s name.

    Finally, how can we discern in context and arrive at any certainty concerning who was actually speaking in the 1st person to whom–a divine person or an angelic messenger when the biblical text states simply states without further clarification that the Lord appeared to someone and spoke with/to them?

    Again, I am simply trying to tease and throw this out to see where it will land.


  4. Hey Ken,
    Very interesting analysis. Your suggestion that God speaks to us via non-divine human persons and that our response would naturally be directed to God is intriguing and not unreasonable.

    I suppose an angelic messenger could be the means God used in the Pre-fall garden when speaking to Adam. But, I wonder if God did indeed “walk in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8ff) yet after the Fall God uses intermediate means (as you note) after the Fall. Clearly the relationship between humans and God changed in significant, relational ways after the Fall. I suggest that Adam and Eve’s shame in Gen. 3 was largely driven by God’s literal presence, not the presence of a messenger.

    Just thinking…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.