Christ in the Old Testament
by Fr Vassilios Papavassilios
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God”.
It is no coincidence that St John begins his gospel in the same way as begins the first book of the Old Testament: “In the beginning…” (Gen. 1:1). Orthodox Christianity rests on the belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages”. Christ was there from the beginning. Yet while many Christians are happy to proclaim this doctrine in Sunday worship or in their daily prayers without any serious consideration for its implications, just as many are surprised by the suggestion that the Word (the Pre-incarnate Christ) was not only there (somewhere in the background) from the beginning, but that He actually appeared and spoke to the prophets – that He in fact was from the beginning the one Who reveals and declares the Father. And yet this doctrine is absolutely imperative for a correct understanding of the Old Testament.
The Christian Orthodox exegesis of the Old Testament is founded upon three vital affirmations:
1) “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16)
2) The Old Testament speaks of Christ.
3) All manifestations of God in the Old Testament are of the Word.
I would like to examine just two of these manifestations – the appearance of the three men to Abraham at the plain of Mamre (Genesis 18) and the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush on Sinai (Exodus 3 and 33).
THE HOSPITALITY OF ABRAHAM
‘"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad”. Then the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am".
“And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant…
And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord…
And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place”.
What is interesting here is that Abraham addresses only one of the men as Lord. Clearly, ‘Lord’ here is not a mere address of respect, like ‘sir’, or otherwise he would have said ‘lords’, but it is a recognition that one of them is greater than the others. And as we see in verse 22, two of the men depart and we are told that ‘Abraham stood yet before the Lord’. Furthermore, I have employed for this passage a translation in old English grammar in order to convey the use of the second person singular (thou/thee/thy), which means that Abraham is addressing only one of the men.
What we have here is not a mere representation of the Trinity, but a manifestation of the Word of God, accompanied by what are probably two angels. This is certainly in keeping with the Orthodox exegesis that all manifestations of the deity in the Old Testament are of the Son and not of the Trinity in its fullness.
This view is expressed by St Justin Martyr in the second century:
“Moses, therefore, that blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that the one who was seen by Abraham at the oak of Mamre was God, accompanied by two angels, who were sent, for the condemnation of Sodom, by another, namely by the One who always remains above the heavens, who has never been seen by any human being, and who of himself holds converse with none, whom we term the Creator of all things, and the Father”.
The same view is held by Severian of Gabbala in the fifth century:
“Christ appeared to you, O excellent one, escorted by two angels, and by your hospitality you became a companion of God and of angels… Christ appeared to you in the appearance of a man, revealing to you the mysteries of his divine and saving sojourn on earth… Therefore you recognised God's mediator, the Son who was to be known between two living beings or animals”.
Origen also, although it has been suggested that the exegesis of the three men as a type of the Trinity began with him, saw in the narrative a manifestation of the Word accompanied by two angels:
“Notice first that with the two angels the Lord was present to Abraham, but it was only the two Angels who came to Lot”.
The Church historian, Eusebius, also describes the scene as a manifestation of ‘our Lord and Saviour’ accompanied by angels. He specifically says the figure in the middle was the most important and excelled in dignity.
The same is implied by St Romanos the Melodist in his Kontakion on the Holy Theophany:
“When God appeared to Abraham as he sat by the oak of Mambre, He was seen as a man but he did not know Him as he was, for he could not have borne it: but now for us it is not so, but in His own Person: for the Word has become flesh”.
“God appeared once to Abraham, but he in no way saw God: but we see Him, because He wills it, and we grasp the One Who appeared and enlightened all things".
Procopios of Gaza in the sixth century tells us that the interpretation of the three men at Mamre had become three-fold in his day:
“Some people say they are three angels, others that one of them is God accompanied by two angels and others that there is a type of the Holy Trinity”
It would appear that the first to see a type of the Trinity in the narrative is St Cyril of Alexandria, who regarded the use of the singular as a reference to the oneness of the Trinity. But it seems that the earliest patristic commentaries see in the three men the Word of God accompanied by two angels.
CHRIST AND MOSES
“If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me"
The most famous manifestation of the deity in the Old Testament is the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-5):
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, themountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up." When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then he said, "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God”.
Before we go any further, something must be said about ‘the angel of the Lord’ that appeared to Moses ‘in flames of fire from within the bush’.
The Angel of Great Counsel
Patristic teaching holds that ‘the Angel of the Lord’ is one of the many names of God the Word in the Old Testament. It is, in fact, one of the earliest Christological titles. More often than not, ‘the Angel of the Lord’ refers not to one of the bodiless powers of heaven, but to the pre-incarnate Christ. Angel means messenger, and in the Old Testament an “angel” was not necessarily one of the heavenly court – it could also be a human being. The Word is God’s messenger par excellence. Thus St Justin Martyr repeatedly refers to Christ as an Angel. The primary source for Justin and other Church Fathers was probably the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 9:6:
“For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder: and his name is called the Angel of Great Counsel: for I will bring peace upon the princes, and health to him”.
And yet Justin, despite his copious use of the term ‘Angel of the Lord’ or ‘Angel of Great Counsel’, never attempts to clarify that the Angel is the Word of God, for that Christ was called Angel was obvious to anyone who was familiar with the Septuagint Isaiah 9:6. Since it was widely acknowledged that Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah, the title “Angel of Great Counsel” refers also to Christ, and thus it also follows that Christ is the Angel of the Lord who appears to the Prophets of the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis 15–22; Genesis 28–35; Exodus 3, Joshua 5-6).
Justin argued from the appearances of the Angel in the Old Testament that this Angel is God Himself. This is explained by Günther Juncker in his treatment of the subject:
‘It does not take Justin long to point out from the Old Testament appearances of the Angel of the Lord that this Angel is fully God. Invariably when this particular Angel is seen, those who have seen him declare that they have seen God and are amazed that they have lived. In numerous places this Angel speaks in the first person as Lord and God, receives worship and sacrifices, and makes the very ground on which he stands holy; yet in other places he speaks of God in the third person and is functionally subordinate since, as Angel, he is sent by God to deliver a message from God. When these passages were combined with others (e.g. Gen 1:26; 24 19:24; Ps 45:6–7; and 110:1) which on the surface seem to speak of a plurality of persons in the Godhead, Justin’s argument became irrefutable. Thus in a key passage which mentions the title Angel four times in relation to the Old Testament theophanies, Justin can hardly be held guilty of an overstatement when he says of Christ that “He is called God, He is God, and shall always be God” (Dial. 58)’
[“Christ As Angel: The Reclamation Of A Primitive Title,” Trinity Journal 15:2 (Fall 1994): 221–250.]
In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin writes:
‘He who is called God and appeared to the patriarchs is called both Angel and Lord, in order that from this you may understand Him to be minister to the Father of all things... He… appeared as a man to Abraham, and… wrestled in human form with Jacob’
Novatian also argued that the Angel of Great Counsel was more than just an angel:
“…the name God has never been granted to angels…He is entitled ‘The Angel of Great Counsel”
[On the Trinity, XVIII].
And St Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews writes:
‘For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, "I will be his Father, and he will be my Son"?’
[Heb. 1:5. See also Psalm 2:7].
Thus ‘the Angel of the Lord’ who speaks and appears to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the Prophets throughout the Old Testament is the Only-begotten Son and Word of God. And so the ‘Angel of the Lord’ who appears to Moses on Sinai is God Himself: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”. “And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”. (Exodus 33:11). “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). And yet Christ Himself said, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father”. (John 6:46) “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18). Do the words of Christ contradict what is written in Exodus and Deuteronomy? By no means, for while Moses did indeed see God, he did not see the Father; he saw the Son. This is alluded to in the New Testament when Christ says: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). Some commentators see here an allusion to the words of God in Exodus when Moses asks for God’s name, and the Lord replies (in the Septuagint), “I am the one who is”; (in the Hebrew) “I am that I am”. ‘You shall say…”I AM has sent me to you”.’
St Justin Martyr clearly saw in the Angel of the Lord in the Burning Bush a manifestation of the Son of God:
“Neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, nor any other man, ever saw the Father and Ineffable Lord of all things…; but the One who according to his will is both God his Son and his Angel ministering to his will, whom he determined should be born as man of a Virgin, and who once even became fire when he conversed with Moses from the bush”.
Sinai, Horeb and Tabor
That the Word of God was made manifest to Moses is made clearer when one considers the revelation of divine glory on another mount, this time in the New Testament. In St Matthew’s Gospel (17:1-9), we read of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor (see also Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36):
‘After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.’
Why do Moses and Elijah appear before Christ on Mount Tabor?: to illustrate that Christ is the God Who appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai and to Elijah on MountHoreb. Let us take a closer look at these two Old Testament theophanies:
On Mount Sinai:
‘…Moses said, "Now show me your glory." And the Lord said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." Then the Lord said, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen".’
On Mount Horeb:
Elijah “…came to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword; and I, only I, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in mouth of the cave. And hear heard a voice saying to him: What are you doing here, Elijah?”.’
[1 Kings 19: 8-13]
In the Orthodox Church these two texts are read at Vespers on the Feast of the Transfiguration, and thus the Church provides an interpretation of the Transfiguration by its comparison with these two Old Testament theophanies. In Exodus 24, God’s glory descends on the Mount and Moses enters the cloud. In Matthew 17, a bright cloud envelopes the apostles. In Exodus 24, God passes before Moses’ face and Moses falls to the ground and worships Him. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah reacts to God’s presence in a similar manner: ‘he wrapped his face in his mantle and stood by the cave’, while in Matthew 17 the apostles also respond to God’s glory in a similar fashion.
These three manifestations of divine glory on a mount are all manifestations of the Word of God. In the Transfiguration, the Word Who appeared to Moses on Sinai and to Elijah on Horeb is now become flesh, and on Tabor He reveals to the apostles His divine glory.
THE FULFILMENT OF THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us”
In St Luke’s Gospel (4:16-21), we read that Christ began His preaching by entering the synagogue in Nazareth where He grew up. There He stood up to read, and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was given to Him. He unrolled it and read this passage:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”.
He then put away the scroll and said, “Today, in your hearing, the scripture is fulfilled”.
Thus Christ began His ministry by proclaiming that all that was foretold in the Scriptures was fulfilled in Him. Throughout His earthly work, throughout the New Testament writings, we are constantly reminded that the Old Testament finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. But this is so not only inasmuch as Christ fulfils the prophecies contained in its books, but also because Christ Himself is the fulfilment of all ‘theophanies’, of every divine intervention and manifestation of God. The same God Who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, Who appeared to Moses on Sinai and to Elijah on Horeb, Who appeared to and spoke to the prophets and patriarchs, is the Son and Word of God, Who became man and lived among us, Who entered into the fullness of human life and the fullness of human death, that we may enter into the fullness of His Resurrection, the fullness of true, divine and eternal life.
The Church Fathers teach us that everything in the Old Testament is about Christ. What should be clear then, after this very brief treatment of the subject of Christ in the Old Testament, is that I have barely begun to scratch the surface. From Genesis to Malachi, the Old Testament is filled with manifestations of the Word, with prefigures and types of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Cross, Baptism and the Eucharist, not to mention the countless prophecies about Jesus. For the Church Fathers, it was self-evident that the Old Testament was all about Christ, and He is truly in every sense the “fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets”. For Christianity, the Old Testament is, as St Paul teaches us, a tutor which leads us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). Its true significance and inspiration can be found only when we read and examine it in a Christological light. We need to regain this patristic understanding of the Old Testament, to read its books with the eyes of the hymn-writers and Fathers of the Church, seeing Christ in everything. As Fr Ephrem Lash has put it:
‘The hymn-writers did not have to search for types and images; ‘wood’, or ‘tree’, immediately suggested the Cross; vessels or buildings containing something precious, the womb of the Mother of God. For the Fathers and hymn-writers, all the words of scripture spoke of Christ, the Word incarnate, and they have bequeathed to the Church an extraordinary wealth of theology and spirituality, which is a constant reminder that Christianity is not a religion of a book, but of a living Word’.
[Biblical Interpretation in Worship.
The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology.
Cambridge University Press, 2008. p. 47.]