An overlooked and rarely debated claim of Christianity is that the maker of the universe once had a pebble stuck in his sandal. It is startling how nonchalantly he stopped, removed the pebble, and continued down the road to one city or another in a small corner of the Roman Empire. History cannot tell us if this man, who was also God, was mildly annoyed or rejoiced in the pebble he made eons before just as the pebble rejoiced in being near its creator.
This scene may appear benign, even fanciful, but to claim that God became a man, being born like us, learning to walk as we did, losing his baby teeth, and subsequently wearing sandals is the quietest cataclysm this world has ever seen. In the New Testament, the eternal second person of the Trinity is knowable in a spatial-temporal way for our salvation and benefit in life and death. He was, after all, named Emmanuel, God with us.
But this brings up an interesting question: if Jesus is eternal, then where is he in the Old Testament? If you search for “Jesus” or “Emmanuel” in the Old Testament, I am sorry to say you will find neither, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. These quiet pictures are called “christophanies.”
But before I go further, I must warn you: this is a mystery in the full, classical, Sherlock Holmes sense of the word. If you are a person who likes questions with definitive answers like two-plus-two-equals-four, please, read no further. If you like to solve mysteries quickly and file the answers away in a drawer never to be seen again, I implore you to read something else. You have been warned.
Ladies and gentlemen, our suspects:
The Fourth Man in the Furnace
In Daniel 3, we meet three exiled Hebrew men named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They served a megalomaniacal Babylonian king named Nebuchadnezzar, whom I will call “Chad” for short.
Chad thought he deserved to be worshiped, so he built a statue of himself and demanded that the Hebrews bow down before it. They refused. Chad threatened to kill them if they did not worship him. Again, they refused. So, Chad threw them into a furnace. It may have been more than the situation called for, but kings with god complexes tend to overreact from time to time. And so, our three heroes went into the fire.
Now, this is where things get interesting:
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”
If you know anything about furnaces you know that things (and presumably people) tend to burn in them, not walk around like they’re at a cocktail party. You may also know that humans don’t reproduce through mitosis. So, who is this fourth man that appears to be protecting Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Is it Christ?
Maybe. The men aren’t delivered from the fire, rather they are delivered through it much like we are in our own sufferings in Christ. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were more than conquerors in a very Romans 8 way. However, Chad says the man looks like a son of the gods, not the son of the God. This could be the way a pagan man would describe an angel. This may be Christ, but you would be hard pressed to find more evidence for that claim than against it.
The Eternal Priest
Genesis 14 has been tragically overlooked in our pulpits and Sunday school classes. The chapter regales us with the story of a massive battle between seven kings on a field of tar pits, kidnappings, plunder, and a daring rescue. It’s the stuff vaguely spiritual Hollywood epics are made of.
At the end of the chapter, we meet a completely forgettable character named Melchizedek. He is the king of Salem and priest of the Most High. He blesses Abram (later renamed Abraham), and Abram gives him a tenth of all he has as a tithe. We never hear from Melchizedek again. I’d bet his part would get cut from the movie.
But Melchizedek is more than he appears. Psalm 110, while speaking about the Messiah says, “You will be a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Priests in that time were all from the house of Levi in the order of Aaron. They were by no means eternal. Was Melchizedek immortal? Add onto that the fact that the Levitical priesthood, or any priesthood for that matter, had not been established by God when we meet Melchizedek.
The rabbit hole goes even deeper if you know Hebrew. If we literally translate his whole title, “Melchizedek king of Salem, Priest of the Most High” from Hebrew into English it reads, “King of Righteousness, King of Peace, Priest of God the Most High.” The only other King and priest in the Bible is Jesus.
But all this is the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is Hebrews 7. In that chapter, the author of Hebrews is arguing for the authority and superiority of Christ as our high priest. That argument is essential to our understanding of the salvific work of Christ.
The author’s argument is that Jesus is better than the Levitical priests because he is like Melchizedek, who is eternal, was superior to Abraham, has completed the work of the Levitical priesthood, and has initiated a new covenant with us. Without Melchizedek there is little argument to be made for Jesus as our high priest.
Is Melchizedek a Christophany? It is plausible. One of the major problems is that Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7 say that Jesus’ priesthood is like that of Melchizedek, not “Jesus is a priest because he is Melchizedek.” Being similar to something is not the same as being something. Even so, this theory has legs.
The Angel of the Lord
There are many angels in the Bible and legions more in existence, but there is only one Angel of the Lord. He is never named like Michael or Gabriel; instead he refers to himself as God. That would be blasphemous for a mere angel to claim, unless he himself was God. He speaks with uncommon authority, a claim also made about Jesus in the synoptic gospels. The Angel of the Lord is also all over the Old Testament.
He is the one who visits Hagar in Genesis 16, where Hagar calls him El Roi, “the God who sees.”
He is the one who visits Moses in the burning bush, but the passage says God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, commanding him to remove his sandals because he is on holy ground. This is an unusual request for an angel to make. The only other time an angel commands this is in Joshua 5:15 by an angel who calls himself the Commander of the Lord’s army. In both situations, this angel does not reject being worshiped, an action that is expressly forbidden in both Old and New Testaments and condemned by other angels.
The Angel of the Lord also appears in Judges 2:1–2, saying:
“I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done?”
How is it that this Angel can speak with the authority of God and refer to the promises God made in the first person if he is not God?
Jesus is El Roi, the God who sees us. Even more, he empathizes with our weakness since he was made like us in every way, and he advocates on our behalf to God. Jesus is the commander of the Lord’s army in Revelation 19.
Could the Angel of the Lord be the pre-incarnate second person of the Trinity? We don’t have definitive proof, but it is very likely that he is.
A Pleasurable Problem
We won’t ever know for certain if any of these are Christophanies or if they simply appear that way. The most definitive answer we can give is maybe. Jesus is, and before the incarnation he still was- I just don’t know where exactly. But I find that to be a pleasurable problem.
Mystery in the Bible is not evil; it is quite the contrary. Mystery is what draws us in a little deeper than we thought was possible. It is blessedly fun to see depths that I did not know existed. It’s as if I thought a deep mineral pool was merely a rain puddle. God is inviting us to swim where we were content with splashing our feet for our joy.
Cover image by Jon Tyson.