WHO IS THE JEHOVAH OF THE OLD TESTAMENT?
There are a number of passages which indicate that Jehovah appeared to men (in some form) in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 18:1ff; etc.). Yet, there are also numerous passages which say that no man has ever seen God (cf. John 1:18). What are we to make of this phenomena? Should we understand such passages to suggest that no man has ever seen the entire Godhead at one time? Probably not, but this has been suggested. Should we say that men did not see God Himself, but rather, only some shadowy manifestation of Him, or, some physical manifestation that is not to be identified with Him? That this is not satisfactory will become apparent in a short time. Some passages say that men saw Jehovah, and others just as clearly say that no man has seen the Lord. How should we understand what appears to be a serious problem?
The Problem Stated
Numerous passages indicate that no man has seen God at any time. For instance, John says in John 1:18 (all Scripture references are from the American Standard Version, unless otherwise noted): "No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." Scripture is clear to show that those who had seen the Christ had seen the Father (cf. John 10:30; 14:9; etc.). But, the same Bible is just as clear to point out that the Father has not been seen by mortal man at any time. In John 5:37, Jesus Himself said: “And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.” John says further, in 1 John 4:10-12, 14, 20:
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man hath beheld God at any time: if we love one another, God abideth in us, and his love is perfected in us: . . . And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father hath sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. . . . If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.
Each of these passages make clear that it is the Father who is being described as the one not seen. For instance, John clearly taught that Christ was historically manifested in the flesh as the Son of God (1 John 1:1-4; John 1:1-18), so, the “unseen God” cannot be identified as the Christ. But, Christ is also God, sharing completely in the divine essence (cf. Hebrews 1:1-8; Colossians 2:9; John 1:1-3; 10:30). Since the Old Testament documents a number of appearances of Jehovah, I again raise the question: Who is the Jehovah of the Old Testament?
At this point, I will advance my thesis. The appearances of Jehovah in the Old Testament are pre-incarnate appearances of the Christ. These appearances are technically called “theophanies,” and sometimes “Christophanies” so as to indicate the phenomenon of pre- incarnate manifestations of the Christ.
The Appearances of Jehovah in the Old Testament
It is clear that a divine person did appear, although often in the form of an angel, both to the patriarchs and also to their successors. It is time to document several of these appearances.
First, Jehovah appeared to Abraham at Mamre (Genesis 18). Here He comes as one of three men, but He announces Himself as Jehovah, who can so overrule the processes of nature as to give the aged Sarah a son (Genesis 18:14). And, as they look towards Sodom, He stands forth as Deity confessed. Six times He is called Jehovah (Genesis 18:17, 19, 20, 22, 26, 33). Once He is described as “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25). His power is such that He threatens to destroy the cities of the plain (Genesis 18:20-21). He receives the adoration and worship of His servant (Genesis 18:23). Then “Jehovah went on His way” (Genesis 18:33).
Second, Jehovah appeared to Abraham at Moriah (Genesis 22). God came to try the faith of the patriarch. In Genesis 22:11, we find that the “God” who tempted him (vs. 1) was “the Angel of the Lord.” It was to Him that the sacrifice would have been offered, and He declares that the readiness to offer Isaac was proof that Abraham feared God (Genesis 22:12). The “Angel of the Lord” calls to him again, delivers the message of the eternal God, by using the expression, “By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord” (Genesis 22:15-16).
Third, Jehovah appeared to Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28:13-17). Here was a remarkable appearance to Jacob of “Jehovah, God of Abraham.” But, in Genesis 31:11-13, we find that it was the “Angel of the Lord” who as Jehovah thus appeared.
Fourth, Jehovah appeared to Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32). The patriarch was subject to a strange and mysterious conflict with “a man” (Genesis 32:24). But, when the day came “the Man” gave him a new name, and Jacob gave the place a new name as well (Genesis 32:28, 30). In both cases, the statement was made that the Being with whom he wrestled was none other than God Himself whom Hosea designates as “the Angel” (Hosea 12:4-5). As a matter of fact, Jacob named the place “Peniel,” because, as he said, “I have seen God face to face, and life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30).
Fifth, Jehovah appeared to Moses at Horeb (Exodus 3). A burning bush startles Moses, and a voice speaks to him. But, the Speaker, “Angel” as He was (Exodus 3:2) is called “Jehovah” and “God” (Exodus 3:4), “The God of thy faith,” etc. (Exodus 3:6), and the great “I am” (Exodus 3:14). He claims the tribes of Israel as His people (Exodus 3:7), and promises that He will bring them out of Egypt to the promised land (Exodus 3:17). This promise He later fulfilled, when, as “Jehovah” (Exodus 13:21) or the “Angel” (Exodus 14:19), He went before them in the cloud and fiery pillar.
Sixth, Jehovah came down on Mount Sinai to deliver the law to Moses (Exodus 19:20-21). But, in Acts 7:38, He who came down upon Mount Sinai, is called “the Angel.” In Exodus 23:20-21, He is promised as the Guide and Leader of the people to the promised land. That this was the same Divine Angel is evident from the fact that He claims their obedience, that it is His prerogative to pardon or punish sin, and that God’s own peculiar name, “I am” is in Him. With this uncreated Angel—this presence of the Lord—the people were satisfied (Exodus 33:14-15); whereas the thought of being left to the guidance of “an angel” —a mere ministering spirit—filled them with mourning and sadness (Exodus 33:2-3). In Joshua 5:13-15, He is called “a man” because He assumed a human form. He is also “Captain of the Lord’s host,” and, therefore, distinct from Jehovah whose host he led. Still, He is called “Jehovah” (Joshua 6:2), whose very presence made the ground holy (Joshua 5:15).
There are several other such appearances, however, these should be sufficient to establish my case. The question now is not, did such appearances actually occur, but instead,
Who Is The Divine Being In The Old Testament Appearances?
First, it seems clear that the Divine Person revealed in the Old Testament was not God the Father. The various passages mentioned at the beginning of this study would seem to be ample witness to this fact. Still further, the Bible never describes the Father as being One who is sent! This is significant, and is sometimes called the processions. The Father sent the Christ (cf. John 5:30, 37, 38, 43; 12:48-50; 17:3, 8, 18; etc.) and both the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26; 16:7-14; etc.). But, in no part of Scripture is the Father ever described as being sent! Now, look at the incredible words of Exodus 23:20-23:
Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee by the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Take ye heed before him, and hearken unto his voice; provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgression: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed hearken unto his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite: and I will cut them off.
Second, it also seems clear that this Divine Person was the promised and future Christ! There are several reasons for making this claim. First, Christ is announced under the very same titles that the Angel bore. Malachi speaks of Him as “The Messenger” or “Angel” of the covenant (Malachi 3:1). The “Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.” This is clearly the Christ. Moreover, I would argue that a messenger or angel is the servant of Him who sends him. So we are not surprised that Scripture refers to the Christ as God’s servant (cf. Isaiah 52:13; 53:11; Philippians 2:5ff.). A message is a service; it implies a person sending and a person sent. And, as this title is given to the Christ, it seems that whenever God has had a commission to execute, that commission has been confined to His Son, who from the beginning, has been the Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5).
Secondly, various things said to be done by the Angel Jehovah in the Old Testament, are attributed to the Christ in the New Testament. We saw how the Angel Jehovah spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Hebrews 12:24-26, we are told that this was “Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant . . . whose voice then shook the earth.” Again, the Angel Jehovah, when He spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, gave the law, and made the Mosaic covenant with the children of Israel. Jeremiah tells us that the new covenant was to be made by the same Person who made the old covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34). The author of Hebrews promptly demonstrates to us that the “new covenant” is the Christian dispensation, and that this new covenant has Christ as its author (Hebrews 8:1-13, particularly from vss. 6-13). The Christ of the New Testament and the Angel Jehovah of the Old Testament are, therefore, one and the same Person! We have seen how the Angel Jehovah was the leader and guide of the Israelites in their trek to the promised land, and the New Testament frequently identifies the Lord Jesus with the events of that journey. For instance, the reproach that Moses endured, when he left the Egyptian court, and united himself with the tribes of Israel, is called “the reproach of Christ” (Hebrews 11:26). But, how could this be true, unless the people were the people of Christ so that the reproach they bore was actually His? Again, the people are charged with tempting the Lord their God at Massah (cf. Deuteronomy 6:16), which they did by murmuring against Him. But, Paul informs us that it was Christ whom they tempted when they murmured against God in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:9). But, how could this be true, unless Christ was with them as “Jehovah your God,” leading them to the land of promise? They were supplied with manna from Heaven and water from the rock. Paul tells us that the “spiritual rock” which supplied the life-giving stream was none other than Christ, who “followed them” (marginal reading, “went with them”) wherever they journeyed (1 Corinthians 10:4). But once again, how could this be, unless Christ was with them as their unfailing companion, the Author of both their temporal blessings and their spiritual blessings? Therefore, it seems that, from the New Testament, the Son of God is revealed as the Angel Jehovah of the Old Testament, who appeared and spoke to the patriarchs.
Third, we can easily show by means of the chart below many of the New Testament identifications of Jesus to the Jehovah of the Old Testament.
Because the appearances of Jehovah in the Old Testament appear to be pre-incarnate appearances of the Christ, and because the three lines of evidence pursued in this section seem to clearly identify Jehovah and Christ, I argue that the Jehovah of the Old Testament is none other than Jesus Christ!
Now, some may wish to object by suggesting that it is really the Godhead as a whole which is withdrawn from man’s sight and not merely the Father. But, I would respond that the Holy Spirit is never said to be observed by anyone (except in very cryptic senses like a “dove,” or “tongues of fire,” or “wind,” which are similes). So, the appearances must be explained in terms of either the Father or the Son. And, whereas the Bible never refers to a perception of Father in clear and unmistakable terms, and consistently refers to a perception of the Son, it seems that we are back to my original thesis. Someone else may wish to argue that it is the “spiritual nature of the Godhead” which is withdrawn from man’s sight, but not a given physical presence. If so, then what did Jesus mean when He said: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9)? He certainly did not mean that anyone had seen a “physical” manifestation of God. Rather, He means to emphasize the spiritual presence of the Father as present also in Himself. Furthermore, we have the transfiguration in the New Testament (Matthew 17:1 ff). And Isaiah’s vision in the Old Testament (Isaiah 6:1 ff) as bits of evidence that contradict this objection. Again, we are back to my original thesis.
Doctrinal Consequences of this Position
What are the theological consequences of this position? First, there are no negative consequences of which I am aware, relative to any fundamental doctrine held by faithful brethren in Christ. Such is not the case, however, with those who are not members of the New Testament church.
Second, if my thesis is correct, then “Jehovah’s Witnesses” are out of business! Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Christ is God’s “Chief Agent,” but that He is not eternal. Only the Father is eternal in their view. The Holy Spirit is not viewed as a person at all, but rather, God’s active force (Let God Be True, 34-37, 59, 61; The Truth, 24, 47-48). Jesus is believed to be “a god,” but not the “Almighty God,” and only the “Almighty God” can be identified as Jehovah. However, if I am correct, Jesus Christ is not only to be identified with Jehovah (cf. Isaiah 40:1-3 with Mark 1:1-4, in the New World Translation), but He is also the Jehovah encountered in Old Testament revelation, from which the Jehovah’s Witnesses supposedly derive their name. The significance of such a study as this one cannot be overestimated. As I said before, this one study puts Jehovah’s Witnesses out of business. Really, the ancient heresy of the Arians was given a modern dress in the theology of this sectarian group.
Third, the ancient heresy of the Sabellians also has a modern representative in the theology of the United Pentecostal Church. They deny the tri-unity of the Godhead, claiming instead that God manifested Himself in three different ways: (1) in the Old Testament as the Father; (2) in the Gospels as the Son; and (3) from Pentecost onward, as the Holy Spirit. But, according to UPC advocates, we have always only one Person in the godhead. Now, if Jesus Christ appeared in the Old Testament as Jehovah, then the major argument of the UPC is lost to them. In other words, the means by which they attempt a defense of their doctrine no long holds, because God did not appear in the Old Testament simply as the Father, but also as the Son (and, I would argue, as the Holy Spirit too, in places; see Isaiah 6:1-8 and cf. with John 12:39-41; Acts 28:25-27; etc.). The lie to this position is, consequently, exposed by such a study as this.
Fourth, the tri-unity of the Godhead is supported by this argument also, since it implies at least two Persons in the Godhead. This is so, because both God the Father and God the Son appear in the record of Old Testament revelation.
I hope that this essay will stimulate thought and additional research. It may well be the case that you do not agree with my assessment of the identity of the Jehovah of the Old Testament. But, if not, then perhaps others will provide a careful study of the subject, as least as thorough as this one, in order to help us identify the Person of the Godhead represented in the theophanies. At any rate, my conclusion is that the Jehovah of the Old Testament is none other than the Christ, is a pre-incarnate series of appearances!
Dick Sztanyo studied Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics under Dr. Thomas B. Warren at Harding University Graduate School of Religion. He has done additional study at the International Academy of Philosophy and Andrews University as well as doctoral work in Philosophy at the University of Dallas.