By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
When many people think about Christ, they think of him as we see him in the New Testament. Because we see his birth presented in the New Testament some may think that Jesus’ existence began at his birth however this is not the case. Though we see the story of Jesus’ physical birth in the New Testament, a further study of Scripture will show that he existed before that. This is known as his pre-incarnate existence. A simpler way of understanding this term is to say he existed before his physical birth. To understand this, you must turn to the pages of the Old Testament, and you will discover instances where we see these pre-incarnate appearances of Jesus. Whenever any of these occurrences happened, they are known as a Christophany, which is an appearance in the Old Testament of the pre-incarnate Christ.
What Does Christophany Mean?
The word Christophany is a combination of two Greek words Christos which means Christ and phainein which means to appear. When you put them together you get Christophany or Christ appears. Closely related to Christophany is the word theophany which means God appears. In various places in the Old Testament, there are instances where God appears to men in human form. These appearances of God are indicators, pointing to the coming incarnate Christ or God in the flesh.
3 Examples of Christophanies in the Old Testament
One of the most common references that could point to a Christophany in the Old Testament is when we see the term the angel of the LORD. LORD in all caps in the Bible is a placeholder for Yahweh or YHWH. Here are two examples.
1. The Angel of the LORD and Hagar
"The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, 'Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?' 'I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,' she answered. Then the angel of the LORD told her, 'Go back to your mistress and submit to her.' The angel added, 'I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.'” – Genesis 16:7-10
To understand how this points to the Lord you must pay attention to what the angel of the LORD says. He not only comforts Hagar but he promises that he will increase her descendants which is something no angel can do of their own accord, which means this is not just an angel speaking but God himself. What brings it all together and causes us to know it is a theophany or Christophany is Hagar’s response to the angel of the LORD.
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” – Genesis 16:13
Clearly from her statement, Hagar had an encounter with God in a physical form and since Christ is God in physical form this can be referred to as a Christophany.
2. The Angel of the LORD and Gideon
"The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, 'The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.' 'Pardon me, my lord,' Gideon replied, 'but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.' The LORD turned to him and said, 'Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?'” – Judges 6:11-14
Again, we see a clear interaction between Gideon and the angel of the LORD. As you read the passage what points to this being a Christophany is when you compare verse 12 and verse 14. Verse 12 says the angel of the LORD is speaking and verse 14 says the LORD is speaking and they are referring to the same person. We know from the verses the angel of the LORD sat down, appeared to Gideon, and spoke to him, engaging in conversation. Here again, we see God in physical form. Here is an important thing to note as you are doing your own Bible study. There is a difference between the angel of the LORD and simply an angel of the LORD. As you look at the passage in context you will be able to establish whether it is simply a messenger of God, which is what an angel is, or it is God himself. Typically, the angel of the LORD is a reference to God himself.
Here is how the Lexham Bible Dictionary talks about the angel of the LORD:
"A study of these passages reveals that the Angel of the Lord appeared in human form (cf. Gn 18:2, 22; Heb 13:2) and performed normal human functions (Gn 32:24; Nm 22:23, 31), yet he was an awe-inspiring figure (Gn 32:30; Jgs 6:22; 13:22) exhibiting divine attributes and prerogatives including predicting the future (Gn 16:10–12), forgiving sin (Ex 23:21), and receiving worship (Ex 3:5; Jg 13:9–20). The title Angel of the Lord is particularly striking because it is used in many of these passages interchangeably with the terms Yahweh (Jehovah) and God in such a way as to leave little doubt that the angel is a manifestation of God himself.1
3. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fire
This last example many consider to be possibly the clearest example of a Christophany in the Old Testament. We find this in the story of the three Hebrew young men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), friends of Daniel, and the fiery furnace.
"Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, 'Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?' They replied, 'Certainly, Your Majesty.' He said, 'Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.'” – Daniel 3:24-25
"Then Nebuchadnezzar said, 'Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.'" – Daniel 3:28
This fourth man in the fire is thought of by many to be Christ.
Tying it All Together
It is wonderful to know that we can see Christ throughout the entire Bible. The Christophanies that we see in the Old Testament are powerful reminders that point to Christ’s eternal nature. This also brings clarity and makes sense of many of the things written in the gospels and throughout the New Testament. For example, consider John 8:56-58,
"'Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.' 'You are not yet fifty years old,' they said to him, 'and you have seen Abraham!' 'Very truly I tell you,' Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!'”
Without Christ having an eternal nature and a pre-incarnate existence then this Scripture does not make any sense. As you continue to read and study, I would encourage you to not just look for Christ in the New Testament, but look for him in the Old Testament. The full revelation of Jesus happens in the New Testament, but we see the foreshadowing of his appearing all throughout the Old Testament. When you understand what a Christophany is then you will see Christ as the one who was, who is, and who is to come.
1. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Theophany. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2051). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
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Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.